Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Jaren Jackson Jr. takes over No. 1 spot

The force behind Memphis' league-leading defense climbs to the top of the latest ranking.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is averaging 3.3 blocks and 1.0 steals over 27 games this season.

More than just an analytical tool, a player’s on/off numbers offer a common-sense guide to his impact and value. Assuming he’s an asset rather than a liability overall, the more that guy can get and stay on the court, the better.

That’s why the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans are saying, “More Jaren Jackson Jr., please.”

If only a simple request could make it so.

Jackson has been the Grizzlies’ and arguably the league’s best defender in 2022-23, doing enough for the scorching-hot Memphis squad to claim the top rung in this month’s Kia Defensive Player Ladder. But he’s done it almost as a part-time participant, with quality-over-quantity production that leaves his team wanting more even as opponents shake their heads “Enough.”

Through Memphis’ 136-106 smackdown of the Suns Monday, Jackson has been on the floor for 704 of the Grizzlies’ 2,074 total minutes. That’s barely above one-third of the time. That includes 16 games in which he didn’t play at all – the first 14 of the season while recovering from foot surgery – and an average of just 26.1 minutes in the other 27.

His stats line in Monday’s MLK Day game was typical: 18 points, eight rebounds, two steals, six blocked shots and plus-30, all in 25 minutes. Jackson has played 30 minutes or more only four times this season and has yet to average more than the 28.5 minutes he logged in 2019-20, his second season.

There are a few reasons, from a watchful eye on his court time once he started playing on Nov. 15 to the Grizzlies’ 18 victories by 10 points or more that haven’t required long work nights for the starters. One of Jackson’s old hurdles, foul trouble, is less of a problem; he’s averaging a career-low 3.0 fouls, though he has fouled out once and drew four or more whistles in nine other games.

Jackson’s average of 3.3 blocks doesn’t show up on the NBA’s official leaderboards because he hasn’t yet met the minimum for games played, but he’s more than a half-block in front of Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton (2.7) and his total of 89 is third despite playing at least 400 fewer minutes than Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez (106) or Claxton (104).

It all makes its way to the Grizzlies’ bottom line, too. They rank No. 1 overall in defense, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. Even when Jackson is sitting, their 110.5 rating would tie them for fourth. But when he plays, he’s a sponge soaking up the other teams’ opportunities: a 102.4 rating.

Here are the rung holders just past the season’s midpoint, from which the winner of the inaugural Hakeem Olajuwon Trophy (and 41st DPOY winner) likely will emerge:

1. Jaren Jackson, Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

In claiming the top rung for January, Jackson has turned his tenacity, mobility and verticality into fairly stingy results for the players he has guarded. They’re shooting 43.7% on the attempts he defends, a drop of 4.9% from their usual. He tops the NBA in defensive win shares (0.152). And opponents are shooting a league-low 52.7% within five feet of the rim.

2. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

As Milwaukee’s defense has gone, so has Lopez’s – or vice versa. Since Dec. 13, the date of the last D Ladder, the Bucks have given up 114.1 points per 100 possessions, a mediocre 13th among the 30. Lopez’s defended field-goal attempts stat, tops overall at 21.6, ranks third (20.4) over the recent five weeks (behind Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis) while opposing shooters’ percentage difference is at plus-2.1% in that time. Lopez leads the NBA in total blocks (101) and is tied for the lead per game (2.6).

3. Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets

Nets coach Jacques Vaughn has praised Claxton’s aggressiveness lately, and that has boosted the lanky fourth-year center’s confidence. Come for the gaudy 73.2% shooting, stay for his defensive impact: a minus-7.8% effect on foes whose shots he defends, including 2.7 blocks per game. In a recent interview, Claxton said: “I should be No. 1 [as a Defensive Player candidate]. I’m defending one through five and neck and neck as the leading shot blocker.”

The Next Seven

(In alphabetical order)

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

  • Knows rival coaches hate the way he roams “like a free safety.”

Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Allen + Evan Mobley = Cavs’ two-headed frontline monster.

OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

  • League’s best perimeter defender, with 2.2 steals per game, 158 deflections.

Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies

  • Leads the perimeter of Grizzlies’ defense – guards toughest matchup at any of four spots.

Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

  • 19.9 DFGA, minus-3.2 DFG% and officially he didn’t foul Westbrook.

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

  • With Sabonis gone, tested like never before in lineup of guards/wings.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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