MikeCheck: Strong playoff finish sparks Jackson’s path back to peak Grizzlies form
MEMPHIS – For Jaren Jackson Jr., normal never felt so new.
“Just to get back to a normal offseason schedule will be great for me,” Jackson said through an expression of appreciation and relief. “I get to have a real summer where I can work on everything. And it’s not as much about rehab. It’s about dialing in, polishing your game and having fun with it, too. I will pretty much find a gym wherever I go.”
Where Jackson goes – with his game and a still-filling-out, 7-foot frame – could determine just how far the Grizzlies get in building a perennial contender around their dynamic young core.
After sitting out the first four months of the season to recover from last summer’s knee surgery, Jackson returned in late April to play a dozen regular-season games before the postseason. It wasn’t much of a runway or ample enough time to get Jackson up to speed for the intensity the Grizzlies would face entering late May.
But Jackson threw himself into the fray as the Grizzlies won the NBA’s Play-In Tournament with victories over the Spurs and Warriors to set up their first-round playoff matchup with Utah. And with each successive step, Jackson gained a little more rhythm and a lot more confidence.
By the end of the series against a top-seeded Jazz team anchored by the league’s No. 1-rated defender in center Rudy Gobert, Jackson had shown flashes of his breakout potential. In the final two games against Utah, Jackson averaged 18 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 51.7 percent from the field and knocking down five threes in those outings.
In other words, Jackson was just beginning to find his way when the season came to an end. And that has generated plenty of optimism and enthusiasm from the Grizzlies front office, coaching staff and Jackson’s teammates about what’s next as he prepares for his fourth season.
Jaren just grinded the entire stretch of his way back (in knee rehab). He bought in every step of the way, reintegrating him. He found his rhythm more and more as the season went on.
It shapes up as a potentially massive offseason for Jackson, both in terms of his continued quest to return to form as well as in his status with the franchise. Jackson is eligible this summer for a lucrative, five-year contract extension that would kick in after the upcoming 2021-22 season.
Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman declined to discuss contractual plans for any players, but offered unwavering support for Jackson’s plight in Memphis.
“I’m really encouraged by what we saw from Jaren – he has been and will remain a massive cornerstone, him and Ja (Morant), at the heart of what we’re building here,” Kleiman said during the team’s exit interviews late last week. “Jaren just grinded the entire stretch of his way back (in knee rehab). He bought in every step of the way, reintegrating him. He found his rhythm more and more as the season went on.”
Kleiman then took a moment to reiterate the franchise’s vision for Jackson.
“Jaren is a massive part of our present,” Kleiman continued. “And Jaren is a massive part of our future. We’re fortunate to have him here, and there’s more to come.”
No one looks forward to taking that next progressive leap more than Jackson. He’s surrounded by a deep and talented group of versatile big men on the Grizzlies roster who all earned starting assignments at some point this season due to injuries or attrition.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
- 2021 Status: Completed 3rd year of 4-year, rookie-scale contract
- Stats: 14.4 ppg., 5.6 rpg., 1.6 bpg.
- Outlook: Jackson got incrementally better as the Grizzlies approached the postseason, but he’d be the first to admit he’s far from peak condition. Still Jackson enters the offseason healed, healthy and hungry for a dominant fourth season as a lucrative extension looms.
- 2021 Status: Due $14 million next season in final year of 3-year, $45 million free agency deal
- Stats: 17.1 ppg., 12.5 apg., 59.2 FG%
- Outlook: Valanciunas ranked among the NBA’s top five in rebounding, double-doubles, paint points and second-chance scoring in a remarkable breakout season. The Grizzlies’ most consistent performer now faces short turnaround for Olympics play with Lithuania.
- 2021 Status: Completed 2nd year of 4-year, rookie-scale contract
- Stats: 10.3 ppg., 5.6 rpg., 1.02 spg.
- Outlook: Nagging injuries, a shooting slump and stiff competition for playing time in the frontcourt tempered the impact Clarke was expecting coming off last year’s NBA All-Rookie team campaign. But the energetic and athletic Clarke still provides the luxury of depth.
- 2021 Status: Completed first year of 4-year, rookie-scale contract
- Stats: 6.6 ppg., 4.3 apg., 4.0 rpg.
- Outlook: Tillman proved exactly why the Grizzlies had enough confidence to sign the second-round pick to a multiyear, guaranteed contract. Tillman played in 59 games, with 12 starts, as a tough, smart, skilled and reliable big off the bench in a deep Grizzlies frontcourt rotation.
Starting center Jonas Valanciunas delivered one of the most productive seasons in the NBA, finishing in the top five in double-doubles, rebounds, paint points and second-chance scoring. Valanciunas also set the Grizzlies franchise record for rebounding average (12.4), surpassing the mark previously set by beloved former power forward Zach Randolph.
Memphis also benefited from the luxury of depth, with rookie Xavier Tillman emerging as one of coach Taylor Jenkins’ most trusted rotation reserves. Tillman also started 15 games and nailed a clutch three-pointer to help seal the Play-In Tournament win at Golden State. Jenkins frequently mentioned having a “good problem” when deciding how to dole out playing time among a power rotation that also includes second-year forward Brandon Clarke, an NBA All-Rookie team pick last year.
That’s one area on the roster where the Grizzlies are devoid of shortcomings.
“You just have to understand the hunger we have, where it comes from,” Jackson said of his unit. “It’s just internal, it’s our natural beliefs. We’re always on go. We’re always ready to attack the other team with whatever. Just the hunger, our fans have it and they just translate that with us. Whether we’re up or down, it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re the first seed in the West or the last seed to make the playoffs, we’re always going to have that.”
For Jackson, it’s now about using this offseason to regain the form that he lost as he recovered from meniscus surgery. Jackson has had to overcome injuries each of the past two years. The Grizzlies have always erred on the side of caution with Jackson's enormous potential to carry the franchise to prominence alongside Morant for years to come.
It’s just internal, it’s our natural beliefs. We’re always on go. We’re always ready to attack the other team with whatever. Just the hunger, our fans have it and they just translate that with us. Whether we’re up or down, it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re the first seed in the West or the last seed to make the playoffs, we’re always going to have that.
“Jaren is a special talent (who) can do a lot on the floor,” Morant said. “Not having him early in the year . . . was tough on him because he’s a big-time competitor and wanted to be out there with us. He took that and worked hard to get back. As the season went on, the more games he got under his belt, the better he got. I’m excited for him. I know he’s going to work a lot this offseason. And we’re going to come back and be ready for next season.”
Jackson embraces the responsibility of restoring himself as a reliable and productive presence.
In many ways, the rebuild started the moment Jackson arrived as the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft. A year later, Jackson was the first player present at Jenkins’ introductory press conference. And then a few weeks after that, Jackson went to New York to welcome Morant to the franchise when the point guard was selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft.
“It’s a big responsibility, man, so I take that very seriously,” Jackson said of leadership. “The pieces we’ve got around us right now, they’re just special. I’m honored to be a part of it. I appreciate the thought that it kind of started with me, being the first one to get in the mix, being there for Taylor – that’s just stuff I do naturally. And to have Ja and the new guys, we have a good thing brewing for sure. We don’t take it lightly. I’m just happy to play with these guys and to grow with these guys every day.”
Yes, this offseason represents a healthy start and a new normal for Jackson.
No rehab or setbacks. Just a clear path to returning to familiar form.
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