MEMPHIS, TN - SEPTEMBER 26: of the Memphis Grizzlies poses for a portrait during Memphis Grizzlies Media Day on September 26, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
MEMPHIS, TN - SEPTEMBER 26: of the Memphis Grizzlies poses for a portrait during Memphis Grizzlies Media Day on September 26, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

MikeCheck: Jackson Jr. ‘excited to be back’ as Grizzlies All-NBA defender eyes season debut

NEW ORLEANS – After pushing through the last reps of an on-court drill, Jaren Jackson Jr. grabbed a basketball and jogged toward the halfcourt line at Washington’s Capital One Arena.

On his first attempt, Jackson heaved the ball high into the air, slumped his shoulders and watched as it fell swiftly through the net nearly 50 feet away.

Swish!

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 1: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots a three point basket during the game against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 1, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 1: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots a three point basket during the game against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 1, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

It was the perfect punctuation to a perspiration-drenched workout. It was also the latest encouraging evidence that the Grizzlies’ star big man is approaching the point of return. After emphatically nailing the last shot of his most recent public workout, the only question remaining is when will Jackson get his first shot to return to the Grizzlies' lineup this season?

From many indications, it seems imminent.

The Grizzlies’ All-NBA defensive team forward could make his season debut as early as Tuesday’s marquee matchup in New Orleans against the Pelicans. Jackson is officially listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game, an upgrade from Sunday’s designation as doubtful.

If he doesn’t play against the Pelicans, there’s a good chance Jackson would return for Friday’s home game against the Thunder. In either case, Jackson sounds as if he’s already checked in after completing nearly six months of recovery and rehab from foot surgery. 

“I’m just excited to be back,” Jackson said as he entered this opportunistic week. “It was just about taking my time. I’m just ready. All the rest will take care of itself.”

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies smiles during an open practice on October 9, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty Images
MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies smiles during an open practice on October 9, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies have been both encouraged and impressed by the methodical and incremental progress Jackson has made, specifically since training camp and through the season’s first month. Jackson injured his right foot during a summer workout soon after the season ended in May following a loss to eventual NBA champion Golden State in the conference semifinals.

Jackson was listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report entering Sunday’s game, but was placed on the inactive list after his workout ahead of the 102-92 loss to the Wizards. The Grizzlies were also missing All-NBA point guard Ja Morant and dynamic scoring guard Desmond Bane for Sunday’s game due to ankle soreness and toe soreness, respectively.

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins indicated that neither Morant’s nor Bane’s ailments were serious, but that the team wanted to be proactive in treating both issues. Morant and Bane form one of the NBA’s most prolific and productive backcourt tandems, averaging a combined 53.5 points, 11.8 assists and 10.9 rebounds per game this season. Morant is expected to return to action Tuesday, and he was not listed on Monday’s injury report. Bane, however, remains doubtful.

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 1: Desmond Bane #22, Ja Morant #12 and Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 1, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time this season, the Grizzlies appear on the verge of having Morant, Bane and Jackson all available to balance out a roster that had been relying on depth amid a 9-5 start.

The prospect of Jackson returning should help stabilize an inconsistent defense that recently drifted toward the bottom third of the league in multiple categories before showing progress. When Jackson is ultimately cleared to go, the plan is to maintain a cautious approach with his initial playing time and to manage his availability and recovery windows against the schedule.

“He’s had really good workouts all the way through, and he’s getting really close,” Jenkins said as the Grizzlies opened their two-game trip that wraps up Tuesday against the Pelicans. “His five-on-five (practice sessions) have been going really well, and it’s just been a matter of working with the schedule, finding those opportunities, that level of work, as he ramps up.”

Jenkins pointed out that there haven’t been many normal practice opportunities as the Grizzlies recently faced two different stretches of four games in a span of six nights. The team and training staff have had to get creative to provide Jackson with game-type simulations and the exhaustive conditioning needed to get his body in position for his first NBA games since May.

MEMPHIS, TN - May 11: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies blocks the shot of Nemanja Bjelica #8 of the Golden State Warriors during Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 11, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“We all know that when Jaren gets back, he’s going to help take our team to another level, especially on the defensive end,” Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks projected. “What we have to do is hold it down until he’s ready. We know when he’s ready, the type of player he is.”

At nearly 7-feet, with the ability to protect the rim and shoot three-pointers at an elite level, Jackson is a transformative presence on the court. A career year last season saw Jackson set franchise records and led the NBA in total blocks (177) and blocks per game (2.27).

He played in a career-high 78 games last season and became one of just four players in NBA history to be named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team at age 22 or younger. Jackson’s production on both ends, combined with breakout seasons from Morant and Bane, were key in the Grizzlies finishing the season ranked in the NBA’s top five in offensive and defensive rating.

Once Jackson returns, the Grizzlies hope it leads to continuity. Through 14 games, Memphis has used six different starting lineups. Second-year forward Santi Aldama, who has shown promise filling in for Jackson, is the lone player to start every game for the Grizzlies this season.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 24: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes to the basket against Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets during the game at FedExForum on October 24, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 24: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes to the basket against Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets during the game at FedExForum on October 24, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Jenkins insisted that the approach with Jackson is about long-term stability and success.

“He’s just been phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “He’s doing everything step by step, and there have been no setbacks, no regressions. We want to keep it that way as he gets closer and closer.”

It’s a process Jackson has been through before. Leg and foot injuries have either cut short or delayed the start of three of his five NBA seasons since Jackson was drafted fourth overall in 2018. Each time, he’s returned stronger and with more added to his versatile skillset.

After working with the Grizzlies staff on all aspects of his health, Jackson is confident his body and mindset are in tune to quickly regain rhythm with his teammates.

“It’s been great,” Jackson said of his journey back to the brink of his season debut. “I’ve been responding exactly like I wanted to in all aspects, and everything has been going perfectly. I can’t really ask for anything else.”

Well, except for the official all-clear to make his next shot count on the scoreboard.