MikeCheck: With Jackson and Green in tandem, power forward now position of strength as Grizzlies address rebounding woes
MEMPHIS – From his third-row aisle seat near midcourt inside the Thomas & Mack Center, JaMychal Green had an unobstructed view of the future.
On the court a few feet away that day in July was Jaren Jackson Jr., drafted fourth overall by the Grizzlies in June to eventually take over as their starting power forward and ultimately become the future face of the franchise. At the time, Jackson was making a major splash in summer league play.
In his first game in a Grizzlies’ uniform, the dynamic 6-11 Jackson shocked many when he drilled eight three-pointers to open play in the Utah Jazz Summer League. A few games later, Jackson flashed his defensive prowess by tying a Las Vegas Summer League record with seven blocks in a game.
Green was among a handful of the Grizzlies’ veterans who showed up in Las Vegas to check out the team’s rookie draft picks and young prospects. From the outset, Green viewed Jackson as an essential asset; not a potential threat.
“That kid’s got everything to be real special, and I’m glad we got him,” Green said then and continues to insist now. “I don’t look it as me having to go against him or him having to go against me or anything like that. I look at my job as being one to help him learn the ropes and get better. And he can help me get better. When we get out there, we’re fighting for the same thing – and that’s to help us win games.”
Whether Jackson immediately starts at power forward or is gradually brought along behind the incumbent in Green remains one of the most intriguing questions early in training camp. Grizzlies’ coach J.B. Bickerstaff seems in no rush to reveal his rotation plans at the position, although he told Grind City Media at Monday’s media day that Green has “earned the right to be a starter” in the league.
As the fourth day of training camp approached Thursday, Jackson indicated players are rotating throughout practices in various five-man groupings during conditioning and competitive drills.
“He mixes it up every day,” Jackson said of Bickerstaff. “He mixes the teams up between drills, just to give us a feel for everybody. It’s random.”
What’s certain is Bickerstaff has placed a premium on versatility throughout the roster. That could lead to a power rotation formula in which Green, Jackson and starting center Marc Gasol share the bulk of the 96 game-night minutes available at center and power forward. All three big men have three-point shooting range and are capable of playing either spot on both ends of the floor.
The Grizzlies also plan to increase the pace at times and use traditional small forwards Kyle Anderson and Chandler Parsons at power forward for stretches. Flexibility and versatility have been Bickerstaff buzzwords throughout camp, and that will remain the case when the preseason slate opens with Tuesday’s game in Birmingham against the Rockets.
“I think that’s the key – our depth is a weapon,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s our responsibility to use it as such. We know we’re going to get the best out of people because they know the guy next to him is going to be pushing him. If there’s a guy beside you and he’s pushing for that spot, you’ve got to continue to work. And if not, then that guy is going to come in and do his job and then you’ll be pushing him. I think depth is going to be key to who we are and key to sustaining what we’re trying to do.”
That was the Grizzlies’ rebound percentage rate last season, which ranked 24th among the NBA’s 30 teams. Memphis also looks to improve on its last-place finish in defensive rebounds per game (31.0).
There’s adequate motivation across the board for the Grizzlies.
And speaking of boards, Memphis must correct woes that had it ranked dead last among the NBA’s 30 teams in defensive rebounds (31.0) per game and 29th in total rebounds (40.5) last season. Their slower pace of play factored in the low rankings, but advanced and pace-adjusted metrics still revealed the Grizzlies were 24th in both rebounding margin and rebounding percentage.
That’s a collective problem that must be addressed, regardless who starts.
Individually, though, there are factors pushing both Green and Jackson to excel from the outset. Green is entering the final season of a two-year, $17 million contract he signed after prolonged negotiations as a restricted free agent in 2017. Green led the Grizzlies in rebounding last season at 8.4 per game and was second two years ago at 7.1 when he replaced Zach Randolph as the starter.
Nagging ankle, knee and shoulder injuries limited Green to 55 games last season, but he’s determined to prove he can bounce back to be an elite defender and rebounder at the position this season.
“We all want to put last season behind us,” Green said of the Grizzlies’ 22-60 finish that left them out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years. “We’re all working to make sure that don’t happen again.”
Meanwhile, Jackson is working to learn all he can from veteran teammates as he tries to build on a promising summer league showing. He entered the draft out of Michigan State regarded as the best defensive prospect among big men, but Jackson also faced questions about his durability. During his lone college season, Jackson averaged slightly more than 20 minutes a game for the Spartans and was routinely in foul trouble that impacted his playing time.
Grizzlies’ executives have a development strategy in place for Jackson, who turned 19 this month and is still growing into a wiry body that already packs 242 pounds. If growing into his frame and NBA game warrants bringing Jackson off the bench initially, which would seem the more likely scenario, so be it.
And if it means assuming a starting role from the outset, Jackson obviously is fine with that, too.
“Summer league helped, but this is a different speed, players are better and any information you can get helps going into the season,” Jackson said of adjusting from summer league to his first NBA training camp. “Patience, man. That’s one thing I need to really get. I’m younger, I like to go fast, do everything, want everything to click. (The veterans) know how the game is played, like it slows down to where it’s almost a different sport. Whatever they tell me, I’m listening. I try to write that stuff down.”
While Jackson is taking plenty of notes in camp, Green isn’t taking anything for granted. Either way the pecking order plays out, power forward should be a position of strength in Memphis for two reasons.
The rookie lottery pick represents a bright future.
Meanwhile, the rugged vet is fighting for one.
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