The Grizzlies need to continue to feed Jaren Jackson.
During the aftermath of the Grizzlies' five-game losing streak, I decided to visit a fan page on Facebook to sample what the responses were. I stumbled upon a comment thread that included someone basically saying that Jaren Jackson Jr. needs to be more of a focal point — and that he was “Z-Bo 2.0.” A couple of people responded with agreement, but I, for one, want no part of it.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
I’m a huge Zach Randolph fan. He and Mike Conley are easily my two favorite Grizzlies ever. He had amazing touch around the basket, he was as strong as an ox, and his hands swallowed offensive rebounds like Pac-Man threw down power pellets. He was the team’s leading scorer during the Grit 'n Grind era and he embraced and reflected everything that was the heart of this city. What Randolph meant to this team and this city will never be duplicated — but that's not the issue I had with comparing Jackson to Randolph.
Despite all of Randolph’s strengths, and the contributions that he made to the franchise, he still had a game that was mostly limited to scoring around the basket and from mid-range. He showed the ability to occasionally knock down three-point shots, but for the most part, his bread-and-butter plays were made in, or near, the paint. You knew what Randolph was — and what he wasn’t. No one expected him to dunk on someone or lock somebody down on defense. He was Z-Bo and we expected him to do Z-Bo things.
Jackson, on the other hand, has a ceiling that is almost literally through the roof. Many draft analysts and NBA minds projected him to be a stretch big with limited post skills and elite defense. Not many predicted that he would be as good in the paint as he has already showed so far this season, and even fewer foresaw his ability to get to the basket off of the dribble. In just 34 games this season, Grizzlies fans have seen him showcase an ability to shoot three-pointers at an increasing rate, score in the paint and in traffic, get to the basket off of the dribble, roll to the basket or pop out to the perimeter when setting screens, score off screens set for him, and, of course, do awesome things like hit a step-back three-pointer in LeBron James’ face to seal a victory.
Jackson’s potential is scary-high and it seems as though Coach JB Bickerstaff — and Jackson's teammates — are finally realizing, after initial stubbornness, that a player like Jackson should not be treated as a project or as a cherry on top of the team sundae. He has the potential to be this Grizzlies team’s first or second option — something that it needs in order to balance out Conley’s high usage and point production. Even in games like Wednesday night’s 95-87 victory over Cleveland, where Jackson finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 block after struggling for most of the game, Bickerstaff continued to use him. This wasn't the case just a few games ago.
No, Jaren Jackson Jr. is not Zach Randolph, but even on past Grizzlies teams that had Marc Gasol and Conley in their primes, Randolph was still consistently the team’s leading scorer. Even though the offense was run through Mike and Marc pick and rolls, they still managed to get the ball to Z-Bo enough to let him carry the scoring load. Jackson is not the same type of player, especially when it comes to rebounding, but he has the tools to be called upon more as a scorer for this team. And he has defensive skills that Randolph never had.
Jackson doesn’t need add muscle or start wearing a headband to try to live up to short-sighted comparisons. He just needs to be the given the opportunity to be the best version of Jaren Jackson Jr. that he can be.