Through no fault of their own, the pairing of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have been lost in the shuffle of promising young duos across the NBA.
Taken within the top four in consecutive drafts, the Memphis Grizzlies had every reason to believe they had locked in a star combination for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for Grizzlies fans, Jackson Jr. has been robbed of his opportunity to shine as his plucky teammates continue to hang around in the playoff picture without him.
Suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee during the season restart in Orlando last July, the Grizzles have taken an extremely cautious approach with the 21-year-old big man, ensuring they keep an eye on the big picture with so much of career ahead of him.
It was good to see @jarenjacksonjr hooping again last night.- Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) April 22, 2021
🦄: 15 points | 8 rebounds | 4 blocks #GrizzHighlights pic.twitter.com/K5RbQhv9FY
Finally cleared for action earlier this week, Jackson made his season debut against the LA Clippers, finishing with 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench in 17 minutes of court time. While his 4-for-11 shooting line and five fouls indicated a little rust, Jackson was understandably thrilled postgame.
"At all costs I want to get a win. I'll look at the film and cleans things up," Jackson said of the 117-95 loss to the Clippers. "On the positive side this is a big win, it's been a long stretch for me. I'm going to take it all in, go to my room and settle my thoughts. The competitor in me is going to try and think of ways we could have won the game but the other side of it is just being thankful for these guys for holding it down while I've been away, thankful for the organisation."
With time running out before the postseason, Memphis will look to integrate Jackson back into the lineup among a raft of intriguing young talent on the roster. While Morant is the obvious star, Jackson has found significant chemistry with other members of the squad, posting an impressive 20.5 net rating in 269 minutes last season playing alongside Brandon Clarke and De'Anthony Melton - the highest net rating on the team for 3-man lineups with a minimum of 250 minutes.
pic.twitter.com/eWo8ybJsBl- Ja Morant (@JaMorant) April 21, 2021
Currently sitting eighth in the Western Conference, Memphis are 2.5 games back of Portland for the sixth seed which would help them avoid the Play-In Tournament, while the New Orleans Pelicans are a healthy four games behind as they sit on the outside looking in. Averaging 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game across 57 starts in 2019-20, it's been a remarkable effort by the young Grizzlies roster to stay afloat without Jackson.
Showing rapid growth in his outside shooting last season, Jackson made the leap from shooting 35.4 percent from three as a rookie on 2.4 attempts to 39.4 percent on 6.5 attempts per game in year two. Still only 116 games into his professional career, head coach Taylor Jenkins spoke to the continued growth he has been working on during his time away from the court.
"I loved what Jaren did. He went out there and had fun, he was aggressive, did a lot of good things of both sides of the floor," Jenkins said postgame. "Defensively blocking shots and going for rebounds, communicating out there which is a big part of his growth on the defensive end.
"Offensively he made the simple play with aggressiveness and force. Really loved what he did, he attacked the game, he's put in a lot of work and the biggest thing is he was out there having fun. I know he's going to build on this one going forward."
With just 15 games left in their regular season, Memphis will look to slowly ramp up Jackon's minutes over the coming weeks, with a critical matchup against the Trail Blazers next on tap. It's somewhat fitting that the Grizzlies and Blazers are locking in a postseason battle for seeding, given they were the two teams that initiated the Play-In game during the Orlando bubble. It was Damian Lillard and Portland who saluted in that instance, but this time around, the Grizzlies will be hoping the inclusion of Jackson will provide a change of luck.
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