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The truths and lessons of Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s performance in the FIBA World Cup didn’t emulate his transcendent defensive impact, but there’s context behind his presence at the 5.
Team USA had a disappointing FIBA World Cup outing this year. There are many scapegoats coming from it, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has not been excluded from the conversation. Team USA’s lack of size was targeted on the glass and in the post against teams that deployed a 2-big system. Their poor rebounding fell on Jackson’s shoulders, in the eyes of critics.
Jackson only averaged 2.8 rebounds per game in 16.4 minutes per game through the 7 World Cup outings — equating to 5.1 rebounds per 30 minutes. It’s low mark for sure, a number that doesn’t cut it for starting centers. If Jackson will hold down the fort as the center, he has to find a way to be more effective on the glass.
However, there’s a lot of nuance missed in these conversations, and this World Cup taught us or reinforced some lessons in regards to Jackson’s present and future at the 5.
Allow me to preface, I’m an advocate for “Jackson at the 5” minutes — not necessarily as a starting center, but he should see roughly half of his minutes there. With his skillset, he opens up more system optionality defensively. He has the mobility to be a terror defending in space in switch situations. He also has the size and shot-blocking instincts to drop a bit more and not totally defend at the level of the screen. Offensively, Jackson can alternate between serving as a floor-spacer, or post presence with ample spacing to cook.
Jackson at the 5 deploys “small-ball” principles without necessarily downsizing.
At the same time, you have to acknowledge his flaws and build a lineup capable of alleviating them, something Steve Kerr did not do with Team USA.
Let’s dive into his biggest point of criticism: rebounding. It’s his biggest area of improvement, but there’s context missed when just looking at numbers in a box score.
Jackson was asked to switch quite a bit, which stretches him out to the perimeter. He also had to help in pick-and-roll’s, as the defender on the ball-handler was left trailing from the screen, leaving Jackson to contest the drive and layup attempt. These two frequent situations often move Jackson out of the frame to get into rebound positioning and to crash the glass.
Jackson was in the mix for a few rebounds, often getting in a tipping war where he ultimately bats it out to a teammate. Those possessions alone were the difference between having 6 and 10 rebounds against Jordan.
That’s not to say Jackson doesn’t need to improve as a rebounder. He showcased growth last season (career-high 6.8 rebounds), but if he’s going to handle heavier loads at the 5, he has to become a better rebounder. Often times, Jackson’s motor wasn’t exactly there, getting beat to the board from hustle.
Nonetheless, Jackson’s struggles on the glass reflect his role on defense rather than his rebounding ability. Big men with expansive defensive roles could get sucked out of rebounding positioning, which could open up second-chance opportunities for the opponent. In those scenarios, there should be more adjustments in terms of scheme or lineup combinations.
Jackson’s post defense wasn’t problematic. He dealt with the physicality well. If any NBA center (Vucevic, Valanciunas, Theis) scored against him, it was in face-up situations rather than physical post play. It’s also not his role in the league, as Jackson serves more as a roamer.
If there’s anything positive about Jackson’s minutes at the 5 during FIBA play, it’s on the offensive end. Jackson has room to grow as a screener, an area of improvement that could cut his fouls (and ultimately minimize the conversation around his hacking). Though he wasn’t found on the roll too often, Jackson set his teammates up with screen assists while avoiding offensive fouls.
That’s an encouraging, though under the radar, development from this tournament. The Grizzlies are a heavy pick-and-roll team, usually utilizing a big around the high post for screen and dribble-handoff actions. Jackson is often slotted around the 3-point arc or in the post. So, seeing Jackson effectively screening for his teammates and setting them up for buckets was good to see, opening up another avenue for involvement within the offense.
Expanding upon Jackson and Team USA’s rebounding and defensive struggles, the lineup construction was quite poor. Most of the time, Jackson shared the floor with guards and wings. The lineup he shared the floor with most frequently:
Jalen Brunson (6’2”), Anthony Edwards (6’4”), Mikal Bridges (6’6”), Josh Hart (6’4”)
The only time Jackson shared the floor with someone considered a “forward” or “big” was Bobby Portis in just the 1st 2 games. Kerr often trended smaller with Austin Reaves and Tyrese Haliburton subbing in for Brunson and Hart — or spot minutes with Brandon Ingram, who was moved to the bench by the 3rd game.
Like seriously, not a single minute on the floor with either Walker Kessler or Paolo Banchero?
There was simply not enough size to truly maximize Jackson’s strengths as a defensive anchor, and minimize his woes as a rebounder — at least in FIBA play. Whenever offenses drew Jackson out of the paint with switches, the opposition was able to benefit inside, whether it was in the post or on the glass.
FIBA play might have clouded it, but Jackson at the 5 minutes actually rock for the Grizzlies. Last season, the Grizzlies outscored their opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 119.9 (89th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) and defensive rating of 108.4 (96th percentile) in 1792 possessions. If more sample size is needed, the the Grizzlies had a +8.5 NET rating with 114.9 and 106.4 offensive and defensive ratings in 1811 possessions in the 2021-22 season.
Their formula is evident. Most successful lineups with Jackson at the 5 have the following combination:
2 of guard/wing
Jackson usually shared the frontcourt with Brandon Clarke or Santi Aldama in these minutes, allowing him to shift between primary rim protector and roamer. With Clarke specifically, he’s sharing the floor with an effective rebounder that makes up for having a rebounding downgrade at the 5. Aldama isn’t a prolific rebounder either, but another near 7-footer out on the floor surely helps on the interior.
With Jackson at the 5, the Grizzlies can thrive in chaos — switch more, fly in transition, and space the floor for their Big 3 (Jackson, Morant, Bane) to cook. The lineups with Jackson at the 5 actually rip — rebounding woes, be damned. That’s true because the Grizzlies can tradeoff any rebounding slip with defensive events, transition offense, and floor-spacing.
However, Team USA wasn’t able to emulate Jackson’s defensive impact with the Grizzlies due to the lineups around him. Even slotting him next to a big forward like Banchero or Portis, or shifting him to the 4 with another imposing shot-blocker in Kessler, would’ve helped Team USA elevate its 24th-ranked defense (per Synergy Sports).
The Jaren Jackson Jr. FIBA experience was more so a mixed bag. He had great moments with thunderous drives or blocks, but his overall performance veered from the expectations stemmed from the pre-Cup clamor of him being their best player. He wasn’t nearly as bad as made out to be via Twitter (X), but his impact was relatively quiet. His defensive impact wasn’t as resounding, only blocking 6 shots in 7 games — often having to cover his teammates’ defensive mistakes. He wasn’t a focal part of the offense as a roller, floor-spacer, or post weapon. However, there was nothing problematic about his performance as the primary big man.
While the sample size is too small to make any definitive takes, there were some lessons. For starters, there’s still value in Jackson in 2-big lineups, because it best taps into his defensive value as a perimeter defender and rim roamer — while providing a difficult finishing window for drivers. He does need to improve as a rebounder to become a more-frequent 5 — and build upon potential improvement as a screener — but proper lineup combinations could help mask his woes on the glass.
Nonetheless… his impeccable shot-blocking, imposing switch-ability, 3-point shooting, and budding off-the-dribble game as a 7-foot big man make him a versatile weapon in either frontcourt positional context. While the fit was murky with Team USA, the Grizzlies have formula for impactful, winning basketball with Jackson at 5 (yes, as well as the 4).
Continuing to expand the horizons of maximizing Jaren Jackson Jr. will be paramount for the Memphis Grizzlies’ title chances.
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