Jaren Jackson Jr.'s scoring -- not his elite defense -- might be the key to the Grizzlies' playoffs

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 7 and has been updated to reflect Jaren Jackson Jr. winning the 2022-23 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

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.

Sequences like that helped Jackson edge Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez in a tight battle for 2022-23 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

"I just think I put together something special," Jackson told ESPN earlier this month.

Jackson's award-winning season included:

  • Leading the league in blocks per game for the second consecutive season with a career-best 3.0.

  • Blocking 9.6% of opponents' field goal attempts when he's on the floor, the seventh-highest figure since blocks became an official stat in 1973-74.

  • Anchoring the third-ranked defense in the NBA, as the Grizzlies allowed only 110.7 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 allowed 106.6 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor during the regular season.)

  • 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 résumé was that he played 584 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 increased down the stretch of the regular 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' rise to the Western Conference's second seed.

His scoring, however, could help determine the ceiling for a Memphis squad that could be without All-Star Ja Morant, whose status is uncertain heading into Game 2 of the Grizzlies' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Including the playoffs, the Grizzlies are 18-7 when Jackson scores at least 20 points this season. Three of those losses came during 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 bounced back strong this season, averaging a career-high 18.6 points per game with a career-best true shooting percentage (60.8). He's had an average 3-point shooting campaign (35.5%), 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 shifted drastically toward the rim this season. He took 58% of his field goal attempts inside the restricted area during the regular season, an increase of 9% from last season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. He converted 61.0% of those attempts, 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) 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."