MikeCheck: Team USA workouts boost Jackson Jr.'s momentum for sophomore NBA season

LAS VEGAS – It only takes a few seconds watching him practice these days to see that Jaren Jackson Jr. has certainly added to his rapidly growing repertoire of tools.

And physically, it requires only a brief glance to clearly see Jackson’s 6-foot-11, 242-pound frame has gained just enough muscular definition and bulk to bode him well heading into his second NBA season.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jaren Jackson Jr. handles the ball during the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team Training Camp at Mendenhall Center on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus on August 6, 2019 in Las Vegas Nevada. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein via Getty Images.

But it’s when you sit for a few moments and listen to Jackson; that’s when you come away most impressed with the obvious growth in his game, frame and mentality as he reflects on a transformational summer. Las Vegas is the latest stop on a whirlwind tour of offseason development for the Grizzlies’ 19-year-old franchise player. He's eagerly bounced around the country seeking any opportunity to build.

Jackson is competing with the Select Team of NBA rising stars to help the USA National Team prepare for the FIBA World Cup qualifier that starts later this month in China. His presence at Team USA training camp makes Jackson the lone teenager among 30 NBA players gathered in Vegas – a talent crop that ranges from NBA champion Kyle Lowery to burgeoning All-Stars Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Khris Middleton to recent lottery picks De’Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young and Marvin Bagley III.

In this environment, age is only a number on a roster sheet. Wisdom and experience, however, are countless and swarm from every corner of the gym inside UNLV’s basketball complex.

“You try to chase open runs a lot during the summer anyway,” Jackson said of what he hopes to gain this week from being with Team USA. “So I just look at this like kind of an amped-up open run, the most amped one you can get. You’re playing against some of the best guys in the world. It’s structured. We’re around the best coaches in the world, the best staff in the world. There are so many things you can take away that you can bring back to your team – how to read the game, leadership, how to act. Things like that. But the main goal is to prepare the USA team that’s going off to China, so they can be ready to go.”

Speaking of being ready to go, Jackson wishes there was a way to fast-forward to the start of NBA training camp, which opens in late September for the Grizzlies. It’s been exactly six months since Jackson last played in an NBA game before a deep thigh bruise cut short his promising rookie season in February.

Coincidentally, the last time Jackson competed on a court in front of fans, he was also wearing a Team USA jersey in a victory over Team World in the Rising Stars Game during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. And his first public game appearance since then is expected to come Friday in a Team USA jersey when the Vegas portion of training camp closes with the Blue & White Game at T-Mobile Arena.

The Grizzlies have global representation when it comes to the upcoming FIBA World Cup. While Jackson is assisting the USA's training efforts, Memphis teammates Yuta Watanabe (Japan), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Bruno Caboclo (Brazil) and Marko Guduric (Serbia) have been on course to play for their respective national teams in China. Meanwhile, Dillon Brooks and rookie Brandon Clarke were on Canada's initial roster but will not play this summer.

Jackson played Tuesday with a group of mostly second-year players who lost two scrimmage sessions against the national team by a point, but broke through to win the third session before practice ended. On Wednesday, the teams tied their final two scrimmage periods. Jackson briefly left at the end of Wednesday's scrimmage session to treat what he described as a minor tweak to his right leg. He returned to the bench by the end of Wednesday's practice. The National and Select teams wrap up three days of joint drills and scrimmages on Thursday, and will then play Friday’s game with the combined roster of 30 players split evenly to form two balanced teams.

With several of the league’s most prominent stars backing out of previous national team commitments, there has been significant attrition on the roster. Jackson was invited to the Select Team last week after a few other players, including Fox most recently, were promoted to the Team USA roster. Barring a set of injuries to other frontcourt players, Jackson is not likely to join the national roster bound for China.

You’re playing against some of the best guys in the world. It’s structured. We’re around the best coaches in the world, the best staff in the world. But the main goal is to prepare the USA team that’s going off to China, so they can be ready to go.Jaren Jackson Jr.

But there are definitely privileges that come with being in the Select company pipeline for Team USA promotion.

“It’ll probably happen a lot more in the future, that’s just the nature of the business right now,” USA National Team general manager Jerry Colangelo said. “When players can come from the Select group and move up, that’s encouraging for them that they have a legitimate chance.”

Colangelo pointed to how the Team USA roster drastically changes from Olympic years to summers when the nation team plays in other FIBA qualifying tournaments. He referenced examples of how Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook followed the Select Team pipeline from promising prospects to Olympic gold medal USA rosters and ultimately to NBA league MVP awards.

“Look at the history of USA Basketball,” Colangelo said. “So, some of the young players here are in that same boat. They have the opportunity to showcase.”

Like many others in the current fold, Jackson has a history with USA Basketball. Three years ago, Jackson was as a member of the Under-17 USA youth team that won a gold medal at the U17 FIBA World Championship in Spain. After his freshman season at Michigan State, Jackson was selected fourth overall by the Grizzlies in the 2018 NBA Draft and was an All-Rookie First Team pick this past season.

Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr at Team USA practice

Assistant coach Steve Kerr (L) and head coach Gregg Popovich of the 2019 USA Men's National Team look on during a practice session at the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team World Cup minicamp at the Mendenhall Center at UNLV on August 5, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller via Getty Images.

Reconnecting with Team USA has Jackson around plenty of familiar faces and longtime family friends among the players and coaching staff. Jackson’s father, Jaren Jackson Sr., won a championship with the Spurs while playing for Gregg Popovich and alongside teammate Steve Kerr. Popovich just began his stint as USA National team coach, with Kerr as one of his top assistants.

“That’s like family,” Jackson said of working with the same coaches who were part of his dad’s NBA playing career. “It’s actually more weird for them, because they actually saw my dad (play). For me, I kind of give them little moments. Things my dad said to me, in terms of advice, are things they may have shared with him. So it’s fluid. Coach Kerr and coach Pop knew my dad really well, and so does (Select Team coach) Jeff Van Gundy. Everybody here knows my dad. It’s weird and awesome at the same time.”

More than anything, Jackson is using this opportunity to take another step in building on his historic rookie season. Despite playing just 58 games, Jackson became the first rookie in NBA history to record at least 50 blocks, 50 made three-pointers, 50 steals and shoot 50 percent from the field. He averaged 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 50.6 percent overall and 36 percent on threes.

But the team dynamics around him have drastically changed since Jackson suited up for the Grizzlies. Back in February, Jackson was the primary versatile complement to a veteran-based team anchored by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Since then, Gasol was traded to Toronto and Conley was dealt to Utah as part of an extensive overhaul that reshaped the roster, coaching staff and front office.

I’ve played a year in the league, and all of that is great. But it doesn’t mean anything until we start (training camp). All of that is great. You take it for what it’s worth. But honestly, it means nothing, You’ve got to turn it on for camp. So, I’m just itching to get back out there.Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jackson is now the clear centerpiece of a retooled unit that also features rookie No. 2 pick Ja Morant at point guard and Clarke, a forward and No. 21 pick who was the MGM Resorts Summer League MVP after leading Memphis to last month’s championship in Vegas. Valanciunas was re-signed at center in free agency and the Grizzlies bolstered the point guard position by adding Tyus Jones.

Every step of the way, from attending coach Taylor Jenkins’ introductory press conference to checking up daily on teammates through offseason development plans, Jackson has taken a leadership role.

“At the end of the day, I definitely want to instill this to Ja,” Jackson said of setting a solid foundation for a younger team. “I’ve played a year in the league, and all of that is great. But it doesn’t mean anything until we start (training camp). All of that is great. You take it for what it’s worth. But honestly, it means nothing, You’ve got to turn it on for camp. So, I’m just itching to get back out there.”

And he's kept himself busy by being on the go lately. Jackson arrived in Vegas for Team USA after spending time with other young NBA players in a training camp run by recently-retired NBA star Dwyane Wade. Also, Jackson had participated in workouts and private scrimmages in New York with several NBA veterans, including Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. And before that, there were the various camp visits Jackson made, including one alongside his former college teammates at Michigan State, to work with kids.

And now he's back in Vegas, a month after working out with some of his Grizzlies' teammates and supporting their run to July's summer league title. What will fans see that Jackson has added to his approach while being around Team USA?

“Better mentality. Better patience. Being able to work on my post game and mid-post,” Jackson insists. “But I don’t want to give too much away. It remains to be seen. But I’ve got some secrets, yeah.”

He's picked up a few at each stop along the way this summer to bring back to Memphis.

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