Jaren Jackson Jr.'s journey toward the NBA began in the backyard

Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) goes to the basket as Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, left, and Omari Spellman (6) defend during an NBA summer league basketball game. (AP)
Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) goes to the basket as Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, left, and Omari Spellman (6) defend during an NBA summer league basketball game. (AP)

LAS VEGAS — They would play one-on-one, full-court games in the backyard, first to 11, best-of-seven, and dad – the former NBA player and one-time champion – would usually get the upper hand, often in humiliating fashion. But as the son grew older and bigger, his game got better and it was only a matter of time before the tide shifted. Sensing that the moment was drawing near, the mom decided a few years ago to record the contest on an iPad, capturing the exact moment when the best basketball player in the house was no longer Jaren Jackson Sr.

Jaren Jr. was around 14 when he finally got the best of his father, who wouldn’t cede victory easily. As the younger Jackson recalls, the game was spiraling out of control in his favor when Jaren Sr. went up for a layup and called foul. “It was such a bad call. We’re talking trash. It was one of those cheap calls,” Jaren Jackson Jr. told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Let’s go review it.’ Because I knew in the NBA, they review. So I ran it back on my iPad. My mom saw it, I saw it. I was like, ‘No way.’ My dad was literally trying to cheat because he was mad. I remember I wound up winning that game and I was hype for about a week.”

Disappointment drifted into acceptance for Jaren Sr., who played parts of 12 seasons in the NBA from 1989-2001. From that moment on, his focus switched from beating his son to training and coaching him to pursue a dream. Jaren Sr. recognized his son’s natural defensive instincts and used their time focusing on skill development – shooting with range and confidence and ball-handling, just in case the guards on his team needed a little help handling traps. The work would eventually lead to a scholarship from Michigan State and the Memphis Grizzlies taking Jaren Jr. fourth overall in last month’s draft.

“I couldn’t play him anymore. He was too good. Blocked my shot all over the place. That was hard,” Jaren Sr. told Yahoo Sports. “So what? You want your kid at some point to beat you. In the beginning when he was a kid, he cried. As he got older, he made me cry – with joy – by beating me and continuing to be a good player as he evolved into a pro.”

In a draft in which five of the first seven picks were big men, the Grizzlies could make the argument that they plucked the best of the bunch. More than any previous era, the NBA’s current iteration has devalued and diminished the importance of size, unless it’s nimble, athletic and capable of switching to something smaller. The 6-foot-11 Jackson checks those boxes and is still just 18 – more than a year younger than both Deandre Ayton and Mo Bamba. He also already has a grasp of what it will take to be effective at the next level: he can step out to hit awkward-looking but effective 3-pointers, protect the rim as if it were made of crystal and has the speed to close out on shooters at the 3-point line. What he does well translates with what the league wants. “I hear that I’m right on time with the way the game is going,” he said.

And that solid foundation comes with an urgency to get better and even more well-rounded. “I’m just trying to hoop,” Jaren Jr. said. “I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got a lot more to learn. I’m nowhere near where I want to be in terms of how I’m playing. You’ve got to work on your game all the time; there’s always going to be something coming at you.”

Jaren Jackson Sr. won an NBA title playing for the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. (Getty)
Jaren Jackson Sr. won an NBA title playing for the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. (Getty)

Through an impressive summer league showing in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, where he recorded one game with nine 3-pointers and another with eight blocks, Jaren Jr. didn’t have to look far for support. Jaren Sr. was usually seated courtside, dressed in Grizzlies polos and T-shirts.

In addition to cheering him on, and monitoring his workload and off-court responsibilities, Jaren Sr. also made sure his son was nourished. After a game in Salt Lake City, Jaren Sr. interrupted an interview to see if the younger Jackson was hungry, then fixed him a plate of ribs from the adjacent dining table. He wants to be involved but not overbearing, trying to keep his advice to a minimum.

“I share a little bit,” Jaren Sr. told Yahoo Sports. “My stuff is on VHS, DVD. His stuff is not on none of that. It’s on his phone. Is he going to put in a tape or DVD of my old stuff? No. That’s what makes it kind of funny. He’s seen little pieces of what I did in the past. He appreciates the Spurs time, the championship that I was a part of. As long as he’s seen that stretch, that’s great. He can take that as a motivation for him, to maybe one day get one for himself.”

Undrafted out of Georgetown in 1989, Jaren Sr. scrapped through the minor leagues and fought to hang on whenever a team called him up until he finally found a home in San Antonio. He won a championship ring playing alongside Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and still wears that jewelry on his right hand as a reminder of the ultimate goal. Jaren Jr. arrived three months after that title, and while he’s always been around the game – his mother, Terri Carmichael Jackson, is the WNBA’s director of operations – the game was never forced upon him.

“He’s carving his own path, you know, although he’s following me a little bit. But throughout his growth, I’ve encouraged him to embrace the game, love it for what it’s worth,” Jaren Sr. told Yahoo Sports. “When you watch him, you see that he’s enjoying it, that it’s not such a grind. Don’t get me wrong. I worked hard in my career. Sometimes, it felt like flat-out work. It’s work here, too. But he’s out there having a lot of fun, smiling all over the place and being all jolly about playing.”

Jaren Jr. has the potential to be a star and impact the game with his two-way abilities. When the Grizzlies decide to fully embrace a rebuild, Jaren Jr. could become the cornerstone from which they build around. He’s already embracing the team’s mantra – “We’re grit and grind” – and has the upbeat personality that will help him endure the challenges that will surely await. He jokingly refers to his father as “a corny dad” but has never had to question who has his back or provided the motivation to reach the NBA.

“I always wanted to do it. My dad did it,” Jaren Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “But I never played with [the goal of being an NBA player], that wasn’t the end all, be all. If you just focus on that, you won’t be successful. You have to focus on winning. I just continued to do what I do and my dad said it will come to fruition one day. I just had to trust in my mind that it would.”

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