MEMPHIS – “Grasshopper!”
That word emphatically shot out of Kevin Garnett’s mouth. Then, the former NBA superstar leapt from his seat with both arms raised above his head as if he were clutching a basketball.
Seated next to Garnett inside the Grizzlies’ film room on a recent afternoon, Jaren Jackson Jr. flinched at the sudden burst of energy, motion and emotion Garnett flashed as the play unfolded on the screen.
“Stop it there for a second,” Garnett demanded as the video was paused just as Jackson caught a mid-post entry pass during a Jan. 21 game against the Pelicans.
“You gotta get into your grasshopper right there,” an intense Garnett explained to Jackson as he pointed toward the huge TV screen a few inches away. “And get your head up.”
A week has passed since Garnett dropped by to personally check in on Jackson midway through a turbulent but encouraging rookie season. Jackson intends to continue implementing some of Garnett’s tips and tutelage as the Grizzlies wrap up a five-game homestand Monday against the Nuggets.
Jackson has already shown stronger signs of vocal leadership and a more precise offensive approach the past few games. In one of his best games this month, Jackson's 20 points on 57.1 percent shooting, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in 31 minutes helped the Grizzlies halt a season-long, eight-game losing streak with Saturday’s 106-103 win over Indiana.
But the seeds that sprouted in Jackson’s performance Saturday were planted back in the Grizzlies’ film room four days earlier. That’s when Garnett settled in for a daylong session with Jackson that will be featured Tuesday on KG’s Area21 segment during TNT’s national double-header broadcast of games.
Garnett’s use of “grasshopper” with Jackson oozes with symbolism.
A 15-time NBA All-Star, nine-time All NBA first-team pick, 2008 NBA champion, 2004 MVP and soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Garnett knows every angle of the game. His “grasshopper” is a signature gather motion, with elbows extended, to set up an offensive move. He was reaching into his extensive bag of tricks to share with Jackson.
In another sense, ‘grasshopper’ is the term of endearment a master teacher uses to refer to a supremely talented understudy. The moniker was popularized on the 1970s martial arts TV drama, ‘Kung Fu.’ It applies here, between an NBA legend and a 19-year-old franchise cornerstone.
Garnett, 42, has taken Jackson under his wing the past year. The midseason visit to Memphis was the second time in eight months that one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history took time to personally meet with Jackson for a tune-up on and off the court.
“I told you before; I see a lot of myself in him,” Garnett said. “He’s the future. I wouldn’t have wasted my time coming out here to work with him if I didn’t feel that way about him.”
Over two days last week, Garnett sat courtside and watched Jackson as the Grizzlies suffered a 20-point loss to the Pelicans. The next day, Garnett visited practice and also spent time with Jackson in the film room before the two returned to the practice court for their own brief workout together.
Garnett also mentored Jackson last summer in California just before June’s NBA Draft, where the 6-11 power forward out of Michigan State was selected fourth overall by the Grizzlies. Back then, Garnett and Jackson hiked the sprawling Calabasas Stairs. Jackson has since ventured halfway through his NBA rookie season journey. This time, Garnett visited Memphis to see how well Jackson was adjusting.
“It’s really flattering and just shows how intense and knowledgeable K.G. is, and how he cares,” Jackson said. “He’s been done playing for a while, so just to see him still traveling to see games, still coming to teach you individually – not just calling you, but coming face to face like this – is just cool.”
It’s even cooler when Garnett gets heated.
Still close to his wiry NBA playing shape, the 7-foot Garnett was often animated and in constant motion as he demonstrated moves, positions and angles for Jackson to apply. In the rare moments his body stopped for a few seconds, Garnett’s mouth still kept firing – spraying golden nuggets of wisdom as Jackson tries to balance the progress he’s made amid his team’s painful stretch.
“Character is everything and ain’t no shortcuts to this,” Garnett told Jackson on the elevator to go from the film room to FedExForum’s practice facility. “I was just telling your coaches that every team goes through a point like this in the season. But the realest thing is that it’s important you keep true to who you are.”
Garnett arrived at a tumultuous time.
Memphis entered this week having lost 14 of its last 16 games, and franchise pillars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have been informed the team is fielding offers for them as the Feb. 7 trade deadline looms. The Grizzlies (20-30) carry the second-worst record in the West into Monday’s visit from the second-place Nuggets (33-15).
Ironically, Jackson is in the midst of his most productive scoring month as the team closes out January this week trying to build on Saturday’s breakthrough. He averaged 15.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and a block on 52.6 percent shooting in 27.8 minutes through 14 January games. Midway through the season, Jackson led all rookies in blocks, ranked second in field-goal percentage, was fourth in steals and fifth in scoring.
He’s been statistically impressive, but realistically dissatisfied.
“It’s been a rough stretch, (and) there are a lot of things we need to fix,” Jackson said. “It just comes with learning. We have to treat this as a learning experience.”
From that standpoint, special visitors couldn’t have hit town last week at a better time. The two former players Jackson is most compared to are Garnett and Chris Bosh, who entered the NBA when traditional, low-post big men dominated the league. But they both helped to usher in an era in which bigs have stretched their shooting to three-point range, handle the ball like guards and defend multiple positions.
Jackson represents the latest evolution of that prototype. So it was only fitting that both Garnett and Bosh, from floor seats at opposite ends of the court, watched Jackson closely during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game. At his best, Jackson combines Bosh’s shooting with Garnett’s defensive prowess.
“He reminds me of Bosh, being able to have a real sweet jump shot and have a lot of confidence behind that,” Garnett said of Jackson, who has made at least two three-pointers in 10 games this season. “I remember when Bosh came in and wasn’t able to put the ball on the ground. (Jackson) can do that.”
Bosh, a seven-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion, also likes what he’s seen in Jackson so far.
“I wonder if I may have had some influence on him, because I know the guys that came before me that influenced me,” Bosh said. “Seeing those tall, thin dudes that face you up and shoot the jumper, I’m like, ‘Whoa, man! I love that.’ Putting the ball on the floor, going out there and making plays on both ends, yeah, you know, that makes me feel good just watching that.”
Jackson soaks it all up. There’s no shortage of pointers that come his way, be it from his father, Jaren Jackson Sr., who played a decade in the NBA, veteran teammates and coaches who surround him daily or a certain legend who has taken a personal and genuine interest in Jackson’s progress.
Garnett taught Jackson a few tweaks to his game for the second half of the season. The repertoire included improving Jackson's footwork on his turnaround baseline jump shot, keeping the ball high on post moves in the paint and, of course, the “grasshopper” setup when facing defenders on the perimeter.
“After 15, 20 games, everybody in the league knows what you do,” Garnett reminded Jackson when they stepped back onto the practice court an hour after other Grizzlies players had cleared out. “Now that you have the league adjusting to your game, guess what you have to do? Adjust to something else. You come through unknown one time. Now, it’s about getting counters, making adjustments.”
Garnett also encouraged Jackson to embrace a vocal leadership role despite his rookie status. It’s particularly prudent and timely advice, especially as the Grizzlies consider fast-tracking a rebuild around Jackson.
“If you’re looking around for a leader to emerge and you don’t see him, guess who it is?” Garnett asked Jackson at one point. “It’s you. But be positive. I know you feel a certain type of way (about losing). I know it’s in you. Don’t stop caring.”
Garnett invited coach J.B. Bickerstaff into the film session with Jackson. Garnett wanted to make sure his message to Jackson aligned with what the coaching staff was communicating, with all on the same page.
“I pulled Jaren into my office and told him the same thing,” Bickerstaff assured Garnett.
Then Garnett issued a specific assignment for Jackson.
“Go into the next third quarter, if it’s not going right, and say, ‘Hey man, what the (expletive) are we doing? I want us to have a great third quarter, man!’” Garnett demanded, having been informed of the team’s persistent struggles coming out of halftime. “Say that (expletive) like you mean it. It’ll create that energy. So what if they look at you crazy. It’s electric. It’s a boost.”
Three days later, after being outscored in the third quarter of 12 consecutive games, the Grizzlies played that period to a tie Friday against Sacramento and outscored the Kings overall in the second half but still fell 99-96. A dejected Jackson remained motionless on the court for several seconds after the final buzzer. Later in the locker room, the typically spirited Jackson voiced his frustration as strongly as he had all season.
“I just put a lot into the game,” Jackson said, curtly. “We lost. That’s pretty much it. When I walk out of here, (eventually) I’ll be alright.”
The next night, on the second end of a back-to-back set, Memphis held off a late rally to beat the Pacers as Jackson, Conley and Gasol combined for 60 points, 17 assists and 17 rebounds.
“I think we all came together, and we all had a lot of energy,” Jackson said after the win. “We decided to come focused, and we played for (the win) for sure.”
It’s clear that some of the pointers from Garnett are gradually paying off for Jackson. And before he left town last week, Garnett extended a vital reminder to his mentee during what, coincidentally, happens to be the final days of National Mentoring Month.
“Know that I’m just a phone call away,” Garnett assured. “It ain’t nothing but a flight to get here. Call me. I can meet y’all on the road. I’m hoping to come back at the end of the year, too.”
Jackson has since reflected on the biggest lessons he learned from Garnett’s latest check-in.
“The film work was important, for sure,” Jackson said. “You can get much easier shots just by staying patient and getting to what you want, not letting the defense dictate what you want.”
Jackson took a step or two, then turned and spoke up again.
“And, yeah, the grasshopper,” he said, smiling. “It’s how you open up to get to your shot.”
It’s also how you blossom after learning from one of the best to ever do it.
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