All of a sudden, Jaren Jackson Jr. found himself on an island.
It was midway through the third quarter on March 18, and after Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry had used a pump fake to get Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks to fly by him on the right wing, Jackson was alone against one of the greatest scorers of this generation.
Jackson bit on the pump-fake too, the 23-year-old big man lunging to contest a shot that hadn’t come, opening a lane for Curry to penetrate. But such advantages disappear quickly against Jackson, who closed to within inches of Curry’s right hip as he dribbled down the middle of the lane. Curry contorted his body, creating just enough space for a righty scoop off the glass.
But Jackson pounced, swatting the ball off the glass to start a Memphis fast break.
That’s the sort of sequence that Jackson, who Caesars Sportsbook has established as the Defensive Player of the Year favorite over Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez, hopes voters have in mind as they punch their award ballots this week.
“I definitely think I’m Defensive Player of the Year,” Jackson told ESPN. “I just think I put together something special, and I want it bad.”
Jackson’s case includes:
Leading the league in blocks for the second consecutive season with a career-best 3.0 per game.
Blocking 9.7% of opponents’ field goal attempts when he’s on the floor, the sixth-highest figure since blocks became an official stat in 1973-74.
Anchoring the third-ranked defense in the NBA, as the Grizzlies allow only 110.6 points per 100 possessions. Memphis ranked 20th in defensive efficiency when Jackson made his season debut in mid-November after recovering from offseason surgery on his broken foot. (The Grizzlies have allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor.)
Averaging 1.0 steals per game. Since the Defensive Player of the Year started being awarded in 1982-83, the only other players to average at least three blocks and one steal for a top-five defense are Ben Wallace, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. That trio combined to win seven Defensive Player of the Year awards.
The blemish on Jackson’s case is that he has played 612 fewer minutes than Lopez, due to his early-season injury absence and occasional bouts with foul trouble. He’s made a point to prioritize positional defense instead of “chasing” blocks or swinging for spectacular swats in an attempt to avoid cheap fouls, and Jackson’s minutes have increased down the stretch of the season.
Jackson, who has a 6-foot-11 frame with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, also possesses what he considers to be an edge over other prolific shot-blockers:
His own feel for how to create shots off the dribble and finish with finesse.
“The difference with me is that I’ll end up blocking a lot of [the type of] shots that I take, like shots that guards take,” Jackson said. “I know the timing of when they want to take the shot — like different floaters off timing, layups, different hesitation moves or moves that I would use, things I would think about.”
Anchoring one of the league’s best defenses has been Jackson’s biggest contribution to the Grizzlies being positioned to enter the playoffs as the Western Conference’s second seed. His scoring, however, might ultimately determine the ceiling for this Memphis squad.
The Grizzlies are 17-6 when Jackson scores at least 20 points this season. Three of those losses came during fellow All-Star Ja Morant’s suspension in March, when Jackson’s effectiveness offensively was a major factor in Memphis maintaining its spot in the West standings. Jackson averaged 22.7 points on 51.1% shooting in the nine games Morant missed last month.
“It’s a product of him asserting himself more, being aggressive in the flow of the offense,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said after the Grizzlies defeated the Rockets on March 22.
“Whether it’s screen-and-rolling and ducking in, it’s rim-running and finding deep seal opportunities, and it’s an opportunity to make a lot more play calls for him over the last couple of weeks. It’s been a great opportunity for him, great opportunity for me to figure out different ways to utilize him.”
Jackson is far from a finished product offensively. He’s asked about his potential so often that he occasionally mocks the term.
“I definitely have the potential to be good,” Jackson said after scoring 37 points in a March 22 win over the Houston Rockets. “I think just growing into the potential that I have, potentially I could be good. Potential is great, you got to just get there. Potentially I will.”
Part of Jackson reaching his potential as a scorer, as Jenkins alluded to, is Memphis figuring out how to optimize his skillset.
A few years ago, Jackson seemed destined to be one of the league’s best big floor spacers, shooting 39.4% from 3-point range on high volume in 2019-20, which was Morant’s rookie season. Jackson missed most of the 2020-21 season due to a knee injury and struggled offensively last season, when he was a first-team All-Defensive selection but shot only 41.5% from the floor and 31.9% from 3-point range.
Jackson has bounced back strong this season, averaging a career-high 18.3 points per game with a career-best true shooting percentage (60.8). He’s had an average 3-point shooting campaign (34.4%), but Jackson has been much more reliant on his other offensive tools, taking advantage of his rare combination of size and ball skills.
Jackson’s shot diet has shifted drastically this season towards the rim. He has taken 58% of his field goal attempts inside the restricted area, an increase of 9% from last season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. He has converted 61.0% of those attempts this season, a dramatic improvement from 48.7% in 2021-22.
There are few players with frames as large as Jackson’s who are as comfortable as he is attacking off the dribble, often spinning or Euro-stepping in traffic, and capable of finishing with finesse, power or a blend of both. The Grizzlies want to see more of that.
“I’ve been telling him since the bubble that he can be one of the best players in the NBA if he takes his craft serious, [and] he has more of a dog in him,” Brooks said after a game in March. “You can see some games where he just takes over, but he needs to be more demanding of the ball.”
Jackson has also been more determined to punish switches or transition mismatches by getting deep post-up position. His post-up possessions (2.7 per game) and efficiency (1.02 points per possession) have also increased significantly from last season. The Grizzlies want to see more of that, too.
“He’s doing it on both sides of the floor,” Jenkins said. “It’s phenomenal what he’s doing offensively to back up his Defensive Player of the Year résumé.”