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The Memphis Grizzlies had plenty of concerns after Ja Morant’s wee-hours decision-making at Shotgun Willie’s ignited a firestorm of controversy that resulted in a nine-game hiatus. Most of them, understandably, focused on the future, centering on the longterm well-being of the face of their franchise — the player to whom they’d just committed what could be nearly a quarter-billion dollars over the next five years to serve as their standard-bearer.
But there was also a pretty pressing immediate issue: How exactly was a Memphis team that ranked just 22nd in half-court offensive efficiency, 24th in team 3-point accuracy and 28th in field-goal percentage at the rim supposed to generate offense without its leading scorer and table-setter?
It’s true that, by and large, the Grizzlies had gotten by pretty well without Morant throughout his career, going 31-21 in the games he’d missed prior to this interlude. Most of that success, however, came by virtue of tightening up on the defensive end, with Memphis typically getting significantly stingier without him on the court. The Grizz still needed Ja to get buckets, though: Prior to his exit, they’d scored 6.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the court this season, scoring like a bottom-three unit without their offensive engine revved up and running hot.
Independent of the broader implications of Morant’s actions, silver linings are few and far between when you’ve just lost a player like that in the middle of a playoff race. One began to come into view, though, when Memphis’ search for new offensive answers led head coach Taylor Jenkins and Co. to one hiding in plain sight — one who typically makes headlines with his defensive work, but who’s proving eminently capable of shouldering a larger bucket-getting burden, too:
Before Morant’s absence, Jaren Jackson Jr. was averaging 16.7 points on 12.1 field-goal attempts and 4.2 free-throw attempts per game, finishing 23.3% of Memphis’ offensive possessions with a shot attempt, turnover or foul drawn. In the 13 games since Morant took his leave, though — which includes the three games Ja’s played after returning — JJJ’s usage rate is up to 27.9%, and he’s pouring in a team-high 22.3 points per game on 53.4% shooting from the field while getting to the line 6.5 times a night, all of which would be career highs.
“I think it’s a product of [Jackson] asserting himself, being more aggressive in the flow of the offense, whether that’s screen-and-roll or ducking in, rim-running and finding deep opportunities,” Jenkins recently told Chris Herrington of The Daily Memphian. “And there’s been an opportunity to make more play calls for him in the past couple of weeks.”
With Memphis in need of another source of rim pressure and shot creation besides Desmond Bane (just under 22-5-5 on .602 true shooting with more than 10 drives to the basket per game for “Downhill Des” since Ja’s break) and the indispensable Tyus Jones (103 assists against 15 turnovers over the last 13 games for the perennial assist-to-turnover kingpin, plus 40% shooting from deep), Jenkins turned toward the comparatively untapped resource of the former No. 4 overall draft pick. Jackson has averaged about 10 more touches per game since Morant went out than he was before … and he’s been going to work.
At 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds, Jackson has the heft to anchor down low and play with his back to the basket; he’s been working hard lately to establish deep position in the post and back smaller defenders down into the lane, where he can either turn and finish with a half-hook or drop-step his way into a layup at the tin. That strength helps him play through contact down low, too: Jackson’s drawing fouls on more than 19% of his field-goal attempts in this stretch and making the shot after the foul nearly 28% of the time, according to Cleaning the Glass, both of which would be career highs.
What makes Jackson such a tough cover, though, is that he combines that interior physicality and soft touch with enough agility in the face-up game to isolate against opposing big men on the perimeter and beat them to the basket off the bounce. Jackson’s averaging seven drives per game since Morant first exited the lineup, more than all but a handful of bigs over the full season, and shooting 53.2% on them — both of which, again, repeat after me, would be career highs.
Put that kind of wiggle and a tight enough handle to maneuver through space together with a frame that can inflict blunt-force trauma and a 3-point shot accurate enough that defenses have to honor it in one package, and you’ve got a prescription for pain. Which, coincidentally, is just what Memphis has been inflicting: Since Morant first left, only the marauding 76ers and playoff-bound Kings have scored more points per possession than the Grizzlies, who have won 10 of 12 to keep Sacramento at bay in the race for the West’s No. 2 seed.
One neat wrinkle to Jackson’s cranked-up role, though, is that Jenkins hasn’t leaned overly hard into the skill set that often gets JJJ described as a unicorn. In fact, he’s been more than happy to deploy his mismatch nightmare as a more traditional war horse … and, sometimes, as a Trojan horse.
When the Grizzlies are at full strength, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke handle most of the screen-and-dive duties in the Memphis offense. Before Morant stepped away, Jackson was averaging just under 12 screens per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. When he did set a ball screen, he popped to the perimeter nearly as often as he rolled to the rim — partially to take advantage of that unicorn 3-point shot and partially to take a big body away from the paint that Morant was about to slice his way through. But with both Adams and Clarke injured, and with Memphis in need of another way to pressure the rim without Ja, Jackson has taken on a larger role in the bread-and-butter pick-and-roll game. He’s setting screens more than twice as often as before, rolling after 60% of them, and forcing defenses to deal with him rumbling downhill with a head of steam.
That, as it turns out, is a tall order:
Help defenders worried that tagging Jackson’s rolls would leave shooters open on the weak side. And while that typically hasn’t been a massive problem against Memphis teams perennially short on shooting, it’s more dangerous against this iteration of the Grizzlies, which can flank the high screen-and-roll with shooters like Bane, Jones and new arrival Luke Kennard, who’s a blistering 56-for-103 (54.4%) from 3-point range since coming over from the Clippers at the trade deadline. (Whether they can hold up as a defensive backcourt under postseason questioning is valid, but it’s worth noting Memphis is absolutely torching teams with Bane and Kennard on the floor together.)
When Morant first stepped away, we wondered how the Grizzlies’ offense would avoid withering into a husk in the half-court without him. Nearly a month worth of improved half-court offense later, a more aggressive, more central and more varied deployed version of Jackson looks like a very big part of the answer. No one in Memphis likes how they had to find that answer; in the heat of the postseason matchups to come, though, they might find themselves feeling awfully glad that they did.