Jaren Jackson Jr. Could Be The NBA’s Best Defender—If He Can Stay On The Court

Jaren Jackson Jr. is a shot-blocking, ball-stealing defensive machine. The fourth-year forward/center for the Memphis Grizzlies had been voted most likely to have a breakout season by NBA general managers before the 2021-22 campaign got underway, and he didn’t disappoint. Though the Grizzlies were plagued by injuries in the postseason 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 on ESPN’s NBA Countdown in late March. “The blocks are cool, but you get blocks from contesting shots. I’m able to do a lot more than most people who get a lot of blocks. I’m able to switch out on guards, I’m able to talk.

“You’ve gotta be a quarterback on defense, 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 had 27 games in which he recorded three or more blocked shots, and his his 250 “stocks” (steals plus blocks) led all NBA players. The man christened “Block Panther” — Jackson filed a trademark on that name in 2018 — blocked 53 shots in January alone.

So did he have a case for DPOY?

Jackson held opponents to 41.7 percent shooting when serving as the primary defender, and opponents shot 6.0 percentage points lower than average when guarded by him. Both of those ranked second in the NBA among players with at least 900 contested shots.

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

In blocks, of course, it was no contest: Jackson recorded a whopping 40 more than his closest top-five DPOY finalist. Steals were a different story, with Smart predictably stealing the ball much more often than the big men among his competition. Jackson finished just fourth with 73 steals; Gobert was the only finalist with fewer.

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

Jackson did come through the most when the game was on the line. JJJ led the five finalists in defensive rating in the clutch with a 96.0 mark.

Jaren Jackson Jr. compared well with the other DPOY finalists

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

Player
blocks
Steals
Deflections
Opp. eFG%
Def. rating-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
Smart 18 119 205 51.45 107.3
Gobert 137 45 87 44.91 113.8

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

And JJJ kept it going in the postseason. In 12 playoff games, opponents shot just 39.2 percent from the field when Jackson was the primary defender, 7.7 percentage points worse than average. Per 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 fouling. 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’ opening playoff round against the Minnesota Timberwolves and averaged only 24.5 minutes per game in large part due to foul trouble. But if he can find a way to stay out of foul trouble — and keep himself on the court more often — his defensive stock could rise even further.

Until this season, Jackson had been plagued with injuries throughout his short career; after he was sidelined with a meniscus tear in the NBA bubble, he played in only 11 regular season games in 2020-21. But Memphis knew what it 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 place beside Ja Morant as an anchor of the young Memphis core.

“[Jackson’s] protection allows us to get out there 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 is still affecting the shot, and forcing guys to take tough shots down there. That works in our favor and allows us to rebound.”

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

“I read what is going on,” Jackson said. “There is no way for me to figure it out; it is kind of on the fly. Everything happens so fast. Chase downs are self-explanatory. You have to get your steps right at half court and trust that the guard doesn’t foul — everything else is about timing and making sure you are ready to go.”

Memphis often calls on the versatile Jackson to guard 1 through 5. All in the same game, he’ll defend the rim, block shots, force turnovers, bring the ball down the court and play the wing position.

In February, Jackson spoke to GQ Magazine about his defensive knack: “For my team: I have to switch onto guards, I have to block shots on ball and off ball, I have to protect the rim, jumpers, rotate fast to the corner and close out and catch guards driving full speed. There’s a lot of little things I have to do. I don’t know if everyone else has to do that on their teams, but it’s difficult. There’s all different jobs. I’m 7 -feet tall, I’m not just switching on a guard, I’ll start on a guard. I’m the guy out there. That should tell you a lot about where I’m about. I wish what was required of me was only blocking shots. Trust me. If that’s all I had to do … [laughs]”

Jackson may not have made a complete case for Defensive Player of the Year this season, but he was just the second Grizzlies player ever 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 be content with being just one of the best defensive players in the league. But his teammates know that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

“He is big time,” Morant said.

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