MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - MARCH 27: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket between LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Spencer Dinwiddie #26 during the second half at FedExForum on March 27, 2024 in Memphis, Tennessee.(Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

MikeCheck: Position-less Jackson not boxed in as Grizzlies seek to bolster power rotation

MEMPHIS – Season-ending exit interviews for the Grizzlies typically provide some level of direction or clarity with where the franchise is headed entering the offseason.

In one big case, there seems to be more questions than answers.

That’s especially the case with the player at the center of the discussion. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s response earlier this week emphasized that notion.

MEMPHIS, TN - February 26: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on February 26, 2024 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

The 6-foot-11, 250-pound versatile veteran was asked if he were ready to shift permanently to the middle at this stage of his career or whether the Grizzlies should acquire a more traditional center this offseason.

“Define traditional,” Jackson shot back. “That (term) doesn’t really mean anything at this point. Anybody who’s going to come in and produce the whole equation . . . Whatever is going to work with our group at that time (and) sync us a little more together is what's going to be the key here. Traditional, nontraditional, that means less and less every year.”

There, however, is little doubt about one thing as the Grizzlies venture into their offseason improvement plans. From the front office through the coaching staff and to the longest-tenured player on the Grizzlies, adding size and depth to the power rotation is a top priority.

The Grizzlies enter the offseason positioned to have a top-10 pick entering the May 12 NBA Draft Lottery to determine the order for June’s NBA Draft. The team has also been aggressive on the trade market in recent seasons around the draft, and that could be the case again this summer. In addition, the Grizzlies also have financial flexibility to acquire help when the NBA free-agency period opens in July.

MEMPHIS, TN - June 24: Zach Kleiman, General Manager and Executive Vice President of Basketball Operation of the Memphis Grizzlies talks to the media during the introductory draft press conference on June 24, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Grizzlies president and general manager Zach Kleiman confirmed during Monday’s exit interviews that the team’s collection of draft capital, assets and resources will be used to bolster the team’s frontcourt depth.

Kleiman, however, was non-committal on whether that path forward with the power rotation would feature Jackson returning primarily to power forward or anchoring at center.

“I think it would be probably our best position if Jaren is playing (center),” Kleiman said of the long-term matchups Jackson could create in a playoff scenario moving forward. “When we look ahead, trying to get through several rounds of the playoffs against some teams, Jaren’s going to have to be the (center).”

Kleiman then considered the alternative, particularly the physical demands of the position and how the franchise can also benefit from having a bigger body share in the workload.

“That being said, from a roster-building standpoint, we see the value of having a more traditional – whatever you call it – big (guy),” Kleiman continued. “We’ve seen Jaren successful with those type of lineups as well. Our hope was that those (center) reps could be meaningful as we’re thinking about the context Jaren is going to have to be successful in for us to be the best team we can be in the playoffs.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - FEBRUARY 28: Taylor Jenkins head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies speaks with Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 in the fourth quarter of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center on February 28, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Grizzlies missed the NBA postseason for the first time in four seasons, largely due to the extended injury absences of Ja Morant, Marcus Smart, Desmond Bane and several others. With Jackson as the lone frontline starter and star player available most of the season, Memphis used the past four months to evaluate Jackson in various on-court roles.    

After spending his first five NBA seasons exclusively at power forward, Jackson logged most of this past season at center to help the Grizzlies fill voids inside created by attrition. The Grizzlies traded veteran starter Steven Adams and reserves Xavier Tillman and David Roddy in February, and finished the season with Jackson literally taking on a larger role.

Although Jackson responded with some of the best production of his career offensively, the Grizzlies emerged from an injury-riddled, 27-55 season targeting more frontcourt bulk. In addition to playing both power forward and center throughout the season, Jackson also spent considerable time running the offense as a primary facilitator.

That comprehensive role led to Jackson averaging career highs in scoring (22.5), field-goal attempts (17.6), free-throw attempts and makes (5.1-6.3), assists (2.3) and steals (1.2). While Jackson considers himself “position-less,” the Grizzlies want to load up around him.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - FEBRUARY 15: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 and Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies challenge the shot of Walker Kessler #24 of the Utah Jazz during the game at FedExForum on February 15, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Power forward Brandon Clarke, who returned last month after a year-long rehab from Achilles surgery, is the only other power player on the roster whose contract extends beyond the upcoming 2024-25 season.

“So, we’re taking a lot of things into consideration going into the summer,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “You definitely need to complement everyone’s strengths out there and account for things that maybe someone needs from a big spot.”

Injuries contributed to most of the Grizzlies struggles this season. But some of the areas where the team saw the biggest drop-off from previous success were in the paint. In each of the three previous seasons, Memphis ranked among the NBA’s top teams in rebounding, offensive rebounding, second-chance scoring and points in the paint.

That dominant part of their game was aided by the presence of traditional centers alongside Jackson such as Adams and, before that, Jonas Valanciunas. This season, the Grizzlies were last among the NBA’s 30 teams in points in the paint and 24th in rebounding.

“Obviously, not having (Adams) really, really hurt us,” Clarke said. “I like seeing Jaren out there at (power forward) more, with another big man, and then me coming off the bench. That was kind of how it was the past four years. But we just really got to get healthy first. And we're going to get a good pick in the draft. So, I trust the front office with what they choose. But sounds like we need somebody big and somebody strong down there for us.”

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 02: Steven Adams #4 and Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies poses for a portrait during 2023-24 NBA media day on October 2, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Regardless how the team addresses the power rotation this offseason, Jackson vows to keep maximizing his versatility and flexibility. Over the past year, he took on the challenge of manning the position at center, a role that started during last summer’s stint with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup tournament.

After playing exclusively at center for the national team, shifting to that spot was relatively seamless during this NBA season. It’s all part of the experiment of expanding one’s game.

So, even when frontcourt help arrives this offseason, it’s not likely the Grizzlies will have Jackson boxed in at any particular spot.

“I definitely throw out the (position) numbers, and it depends on the game for me,” Jackson said of embracing his role. “There’s versatility. There’s bringing the ball up and running a play. There are just differences. I don’t think the game will ever go back to (traditional). So, whoever wants to contribute and wants to be here, that’s going to be the key.”

And that key to landing another post presence should unlock another level of potential around Jackson as the Grizzlies chart their way back into playoff contention next season.