It's a crowded field, but Jaren Jackson Jr. could be the best of this year’s rookie class

Yahoo Sports

Spacing the Floor | Part I: Why Fred Hoiberg-Bulls relationship was doomed from the start

NEW YORK — The NBA’s rookie class is exceeding expectations, and many feel it’ll eventually join 1996 (Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash) and 2003 (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade) as the best in recent memory.

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Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young will be forever linked due to their draft-night trade, and Chicago’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Phoenix’s DeAndre Ayton have put up good numbers on underperforming teams.

But of all the impressive first-year players, one wonders if Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. will wind up being the best of them all, an unexpected development considering the questions about him entering the draft and his standing as the league’s youngest player.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

Scouts had him pegged as the player with the highest ceiling but the least amount of performance certainty. He wore that ugly “potential” label that’s slapped on players who can do a little bit of everything but nothing great.

Watching him play, though, not only is he NBA-ready, but he’s doing it for a team that wouldn’t seem to have the patience for such a young player: the mature, grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies.

He defends the rim and can get out to defend the 3-point line, while showing the ability to score in the post and the feel to know where to be on the floor when he doesn’t have the ball.

“I know exactly what it’s like. Granted he was in a different situation than I was in. We were still rebuilding,” point guard Mike Conley Jr. told Yahoo Sports recently. “A guy like him, he knew coming in that we would be really good if he could be really good. And he’s been awesome. He’s been everything we needed.”

Friday night against the Brooklyn Nets was the perfect illustration of the Grizzlies’ partnership with the 6-foot-11 Jackson, and how Jackson’s relentless energy set the stage for an improbable win. The Grizzlies were dragging and allowed the Nets to pull away to a seven-point lead with 33 seconds left.

Then Jackson went to work, nailing a triple and getting fouled to complete a four-point play. Next thing you knew, Jackson nailed a 28-footer to take the air out of the Barclays Center, sending the game to a pair of overtimes where Conley closed matters.

At the end of the night, Jackson’s 36 points were an NBA rookie high this season and he added eight rebounds in 43 minutes.

“No stage is too big for this kid,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the victory, almost stunned.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/6015/" data-ylk="slk:Jaren Jackson Jr.">Jaren Jackson Jr.</a> is the youngest player in the NBA. (AP)
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the youngest player in the NBA. (AP)

Jackson playing on a team of veterans is an unusual situation. Injuries created the lottery opportunity for the Grizzlies last year, so instead of tearing the franchise down to the studs, they added one in the draft.

“We knew if we were healthy, we were right back in the mix of things,” Conley told Yahoo Sports, highlighting the amount of pressure Jackson faced coming in.

Jackson’s stats don’t jump off the page — 13.9 points on 52 percent shooting, 35.2 percent from three, 4.5 rebounds, two blocks — but he’s top five in most categories for rookies.

“We knew he could be good. He could shoot, he’s athletic enough to protect the rim, all that stuff,” a high-ranking Grizzlies official told Yahoo Sports. “But no, we didn’t know he would have the feel for the game that he does. He sees the floor so well. He’s a perfect fit with [Marc] Gasol so far. It’s hard to keep the expectations down because we can see what he can become.”

After the best night of his rookie campaign, Jackson admitted his head was spinning because of the fatigue but that was the extent of his shock.

“I worked hard at it,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “So I feel like you get what you put into it, and I put a whole lot into it this summer. I was at it every day. I’m happy for myself. I’m not complacent. I don’t know, my mind is kind of fried right now.”

Only then do you realize he’s just 81 days past 19 years old and playing above his head. Last season at Michigan State, he had games in which he was a marvel, but also games in which you barely knew he was on the floor. It would be fair to question Michigan State coach Tom Izzo for holding him back and creating the perception that he wasn’t quite ready, but he sees it differently.

“I felt like I got exactly what I wanted at Michigan State,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “Izzo helped me in ways people don’t see, in terms of how hard you have to play, how hard you have to work. I already had that, but he instilled a new level of work ethic, a new level of things [people] don’t see. I never felt like I was held back.”

When asked why his game has expanded, he gave a mature answer.

“It’s just a matter of, in the pros, it’s [less] zone, it’s more space, so I feel a lot of good players in college feel your game is more tailored to the pros,” he said.

But he wouldn’t be able to display those talents if he didn’t have the trust of Conley and Gasol, the mainstays who’ve defined the franchise for the entire decade.

“It takes time, just like with anything. It’s like a new relationship. You have to learn each other’s tendencies,” Conley said. “At times earlier in the season, where he would be driving it and I’d be like, ‘Don’t shoot it,’ and he would shoot it and make it. I understand he makes those shots. I’m telling him to go at it every time he touches the ball.”

Assuming Jackson continues his development, what team would want to see the Grizzlies in a seven-game series come May?

“We feel we’re a playoff team. Right now, today. We still have a long way to go, honestly,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’ll get better and better as the season goes on, and we can make some noise.”

Buzzer-beaters

1. Gregg Popovich is a curmudgeon. But man, he’s right about the style of today’s game. All in all, it’s exciting, but the game has become homogenized. Watching one game to the next, the variety has disappeared. I like the post play. I like some ugly games. Everybody just runs to the 3-point line.

2. The Western Conference is a game of musical chairs and it all looks fun but … short of Golden State, is this a whole crop of mediocre as opposed to the usual narrative of 10 really good teams?

3. Washington Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld has to account for his team’s inconsistencies at some point, right?

4. The Boston Celtics: too many good players, not enough great players. Danny Ainge is awfully quiet. Beware.

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