Jaren Jackson Jr. could be the best defender in the NBA – if he can stay on the court


Jaren Jackson Jr. is a defensive machine that blocks shots and steals the ball. The Memphis Grizzlies fourth-year forward/center had been voted most likely to have a breakout season by NBA general managers before the start of the 2021-22 campaign, and he didn’t disappoint. Although the Grizzlies were plagued with playoff injuries and fell to Golden State in the second round, Jackson was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team for the season.

JJJ was happy with the honor, saying it was one of his goals. But he didn’t win the trophy he really wanted: Defensive Player of the Year.

“Of course I think I’m Defensive Player of the Year,” the 6-foot-11 phenom said during ESPN’s NBA Countdown in late March. “Blocks are cool, but you get blocks by contesting shots. I am able to do a lot more than most people who get a lot of blocks. I can switch guards, I can talk.

“You have to be a defensive quarterback, and I think that’s what people miss.”

At just 22 years old, Jackson led the NBA with 177 blocks — 2.27 blocks per game — in a career-high 78 regular-season games. He played 27 games in which he recorded three or more blocked shots, and his 250 “stocks” (steals plus blocks) led all NBA players. The Baptized Man”Block Panther“- Jackson trademarked that name in 2018 – blocked 53 shots in January alone.

So did he have a DPOY case?

Jackson held opponents to 41.7% shooting when serving as primary defenseman, and opponents shot 6.0 percentage points below average when guarded by him. Both ranked second in the NBA among players with at least 900 shots contested.

The award went to Boston’s Marcus Smart – the first guard to win the award since 1996. Jackson finished fifth in voting, with 10 first-place votes and 99 points overall. Also ahead of him were Mikal Bridges of Phoenix, Rudy Gobert of Utah and Bam Adebayo of Miami. Let’s take a look at how JJJ compared to the other finalists.

In blocks, of course, it was no contest: Jackson recorded 40 more than his closest top-five DPOY runner-up. Steals were a different story, with Smart predictably stealing the ball far more often than the big men among his competitors. Jackson was only fourth with 73 interceptions; Gobert was the only finalist with less.

Other statistics tell a similar story. Of the five, Jackson was second to Gobert in effective opponent field goal percentage, according to Second Spectrum. In hustle plays, Jackson was tied for third in deflections, second in three-point shots contested, and third in stray balls recovered.

Jackson had the most success when the game was on the line. JJJ led the five finalists in defensive rating in the clutch with a 96.0 rating.

Jaren Jackson Jr. compared well to other DPOY finalists

Totals in various metrics for the five Defensive Player of the Year finalists during the 2021-22 regular season

Opp. eFG%
Def. note in Clutch
jackson 177 73 136 47.84% 96.0
Bridges 36 96 168 50.05 97.6
Adebayo 44 80 136 50.54 102.4
Clever 18 119 205 51.45 107.3
Gobert 137 45 87 44.91 113.8

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

And JJJ continued through the playoffs. In 12 playoff games, opponents shot just 39.2 percent from the field when Jackson was the leading defenseman, 7.7 percentage points below average. In 48 minutes in the playoffs, he averaged 11.7 rebounds, 4.3 blocks and 1.3 steals. And, of course, he led the playoffs with 2.5 blocks per game.

The case against Jackson is his inability to defend without fail. He committed 272 fouls in the regular season, second only to Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate. Jackson averaged 7.6 fouls per 36 minutes in the Grizzlies’ first round playoff run against the Minnesota Timberwolves and averaged just 24.5 minutes per game largely due to foul play issues. But if he can find a way to stay out of trouble – and stay on the pitch more often – his defensive stock could rise even further.

Until this season, Jackson had been plagued with injuries throughout his short career; after being sidelined with a torn meniscus in the NBA bubble, he played just 11 regular season games in 2020-21. But Memphis knew what he had in the Michigan State alum: Last October, Jackson and the Grizzlies agreed to a four-year, $105 million rookie contract extension to solidify his spot. alongside Ja Morant as the anchor of Memphis’ young core.

“[Jackson’s] protection lets us get out and run, but also stops the other team from scoring,” Morant said after a January game against the Chicago Bulls in which Jackson recorded five blocks. “Even if he doesn’t block the shot, he still affects the shot and makes the guys take hard shots there. It works in our favor and allows us to bounce back.

Jackson’s defensive prowess helped Memphis finish sixth overall defensively. The Grizzlies became the third NBA team since the start of the 1982-83 season to lead the league in both interceptions and blocks.

“I’ve read what’s going on,” Jackson said. “There’s no way for me to figure it out; it’s a bit on the fly. Everything is happening so fast. The prosecutions are explicit. You need to step well on the half court and trust the guard isn’t committing a foul – everything else is a matter of timing and making sure you’re ready to go.

Memphis often calls on the versatile Jackson to guard 1-5. In the same play, he’ll defend the rim, block shots, force turnovers, get the ball downfield and play wing position.

In February, Jackson spoke to GQ Magazine about his defensive skills: “For my team: I have to pass on guards, I have to block shots on the ball and off the ball, I have to protect the rim, the jumpers, turn quickly to the corner and close and grab the guards who are running at full speed. There are a lot of little things I have to do. I don’t know if everyone has to do it in their team, but it’s difficult. There are has all different trades. I’m 7 feet tall, I don’t just turn on a guard, I’ll start with a guard. I’m the guy over there. That should tell you a lot about where I am. I wish all I was asked to do was block shots. Trust me. If that’s all I had to do… [laughs]”

Jackson may not have had a full case for Defensive Player of the Year this season, but he was just the second Grizzlies player to be named to the All-Defensive First Team – joining Tony Allen, who received the honor three times while playing with the franchise.

For now, Jackson will have to settle for being one of the best defensive players in the league. But his teammates know he is a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s high time,” Morant said.

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