MEMPHIS – When Jaren Jackson Jr. was announced last month as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, the league’s shot-blocks leader quickly rejected any notion it was a solo award.
“Shoutout to the guy on my right,” Jackson said from his home during a national television interview that night.
Jackson was referring to Grizzlies teammate Dillon Brooks, who formed the other half of one of the best two-man defensive tandems in the NBA this season.
It was only fitting that Jackson and Brooks were again linked Tuesday when the league announced its All-NBA Defensive Team selections. As expected, Jackson was named a first-team pick for the second time in his career after leading the NBA in blocks per game (3.0) and posting the top individual defensive rating most of the season.
But this was a breakthrough accomplishment for Brooks, a second-team pick after performing as one of the NBA’s preeminent perimeter defenders this season.
Jackson and Brooks anchored a Grizzlies team that finished the regular season with the league’s second-best defensive rating. Memphis joined Milwaukee as the only teams to place two players on the All-NBA defensive teams.
Jackson and Brooks share the distinction on the 10-year anniversary of the last Grizzlies duo to make the All-NBA defensive teams. It was after the 2012-13 season when center Marc Gasol was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team pick while guard Tony Allen garnered a first-team selection.
There’s definitely a symbolic connection between four of the best defenders to ever suit up for the franchise. Last month, Jackson spoke about how meaningful it would be to bring another Defensive Player of the Year trophy back to Memphis.
As a rookie and No. 4 overall draft pick in 2018, Jackson spent his first NBA season under Gasol’s tutelage in the Grizzlies frontcourt. The previous year, Brooks arrived in Memphis as a second-round pick in 2017 and took over the perimeter defensive stopper role after Allen’s departure.
The transition in eras has seen Memphis maintain status as a tough-minded defensive unit.
“You’ve got to have that growth,” the 6-foot-11 Jackson said of establishing himself through his five NBA seasons as one of the league’s most versatile power forwards. “You have to figure out how to make more of an impact as a two-way player, offensively and defensively.”
The results have been historic.
Jackson, 23, became the second-youngest player in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year. His second first-team honor came during a season in which Jackson was also named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career.
He joined Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Ben Wallace – all Hall of Famers – as the only players in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year while averaging at least three blocks and a steal for a top-five rated defensive team.
While Jackson was a major deterrent for opponents at the rim, Brooks was simply a hound on the perimeter. Individually, Brooks held opponents to a lower shooting percentage than any other defender in the league and his overall defensive rating was sixth-best in the NBA among players who averaged at least 30 minutes per game.
Brooks’ feisty play and in-your-face style also contributed to his leading the NBA in technical fouls this season, which twice resulted in one-game suspensions. But playing with that edge also allowed Brooks to become one of the fiercest defenders in the league.
As a result, he’s drawn both ire and admiration from some of the NBA’s top players.
“I think Dillon Brooks has really taken advantage of the opportunities he has playing with a young team, having so much responsibility as a young player, being able to guard some of the best players,” Suns superstar Kevin Durant said last month during a Boardroom podcast. “We’ve seen so many players in the history of the game that we all love for doing the same (edgy) stuff. I can respect that he’s bringing that energy to the game every time he plays.”
Brooks insists that his trash talk and aggressive defensive energy are essential to create the mindset he needs while taking on the toughest perimeter assignments most nights.
“At the end of the day, it’s just competition,” Brooks said. “And most people are scared to compete. That’s why they get rattled when I compete against them. I do that to create an advantage for myself. Sometimes it gets the best of me. But you have to have that edge on the defensive end. I’m going to continue to do what I do, and I’m going to get better.”
Brooks said he appreciated the acknowledgement from Jackson that night when the Defensive Player of the Year award was announced.
“We enabled each other on that defensive end,” Brooks pointed out. “He got so much better toward the end of the season with it. And my defense will never leave me, even though I came into the league without that defensive persona (as a reputation).”
Where the Grizzlies All-Defensive team tandem goes from here remains to be seen.
Jackson, a franchise catalyst alongside Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, just completed the first season of a lucrative, four-year contract extension with Memphis. Brooks, 27, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Together, they helped establish the Grizzlies as one of the NBA’s most consistent and competitive defensive teams the past three years.
Unfortunately, the combination of injuries and inconsistent offense hurt the Grizzlies in the playoffs on the way to their first-round series loss to the Lakers.
That reality has left Jackson trying to balance the pride that comes with individual achievements with the agony of his team falling short of expectations in the playoffs.
“Digest it and own it,” Jackson said. “Own everything. Take the positives and rock with everything from the year. Understand what happened in the postseason can’t happen anymore. Make that a staple of what drives you in the summer.”
The Grizzlies were driven by a top-two ranked defense much of the season.
They deserved those two spots on the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams.