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  • Memphis phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. has unlocked the Grizzlies' two-way potential with a malleable skill set reminiscent of his favorite Japanese manga character.
By Jake Fischer
December 05, 2018

His limbs extend like rubber, stretching around and through his foes. He performs daring feats to earn the respect of his older comrades. Monkey D. Luffy, the protagonist of One Piece, a popular Japanese manga series, could feasibly depict Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. The third-youngest player in history to hang 30 points in an NBA game, “trailing” only LeBron James and Kevin Durant, is blitzing opponents. Jackson hasn’t quite stabbed himself underneath his left eye to impress drunken Pirates. His versatile skill package has, far more reasonably, befuddled defenders and earned the respect of grizzled veterans.

Jackson discovered Dragon Ball Z as a youngster and rejoined the expansive world of anime during high school, losing himself in fantasy while his profile fantastically soared up recruiting rankings. “It’s real lit,” Jackson says. “Everything’s exaggerated. It’s different than any type of show you’d watch. Everything’s over the top and then some. Emotions are crazy. The fighting’s crazy.” After practices, he devoured episodes of One Piece and Naruto, a series chronicling the wunderkind ninja Naruto Uzumaki. Jackson particularly connected with Luffy, who developed superpowers as a 7-year-old. “He’s real stretchy. He’ll just beat you down and he’ll act real casual about it, which is the funny part,” Jackson explains. “He just acts like it’s an everyday thing, but like, he just kills somebody. Just goes off.”

The analog is obvious. The youngest player to log an NBA minute this season has unlocked Memphis’ ultimate potential on both sides of the floor, a paragon malleable big man who can seemingly accomplish any task on 94 feet of hardwood. Although, Luffy, created by Eiichiro Oda in 1997, developed his elastic powers from accidentally eating a fabled Devil Fruit. Jackson, born in Sept. 1999, couples the dexterity of a 12-year NBA veteran father and the poise of his mother, Terri, the executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association.

Jackson ranks seventh in the league in blocks, limiting opponents to the 10th-lowest field goal percentage within six feet of the rim. The four stingiest two-man defensive lineups in the NBA all include the Grizzlies rookie. Jackson is simultaneously one of just 11 frontcourt behemoths to drill over 35% of his three-point attempts. “You forget the guy’s only 19 years old right now,” says Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.

Getty Images/SI Illustration by Bryce Wood

Jackson arrived in East Lansing in May 2017 only days after finishing his senior year of high school. Izzo has long believed big men, unlike their teenier teammates, must evolve into gym rats. Jackson, however, quickly added 20 pounds of muscle, trusting MSU’s athletic training staff and religiously following the team nutritionist’s rigid dietary recommendations. “He was just kind of a sponge,” Izzo says. He bunked the freshman with three upperclassmen teammates, pairing him with senior Tum Tum Nairn, sophomore Josh Langford and fellow-future lottery pick Miles Bridges in an apartment near the Breslin Center.

They found beats on YouTube and Spotify and took turns spitting freestyles. “Somebody would stop and you’d just come right back in,” Bridges says. Nairn claimed most battles, but the freshman's rhymes held their own. “I’m nice,” he boasts. Bridges got ahold of Jackson’s Netflix password and still uses the account to download episodes for Hornets team flights. “That’s free money,” Bridges surmises. Only the feed’s recent history remains flooded with Japanese cartoons the high-flyer has never heard of.

Sparty cruised to a 15-1 start when Bridges and Jackson were teammates. And from State’s second outing, an 88-81 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic in which Jackson poured in 19 points on 3-of-5 shooting from deep, the whispers of “one-and-done” crescendoed into screams. The Jacksons simply wanted their interminable boy to enjoy playing college ball. Terri even phoned Izzo in protest after a national broadcast’s play-by-play deemed Jackson an automatic entry into June’s draft. As expectations exploded, Izzo summoned the diaper dandy to his office, asking the phenom if he was playing to simply to be drafted or win a championship and emerge as a sure-fire top-five pick. The hypothetical left Jackson nonplussed. Their only, collective, option was winning. “It made my job a lot easier,” Izzo says. “I shouldn’t have been paid last year.”

His elite rim protection forged the backbone of MSU’s defense. Jackson learned how to switch onto nimbler opponents and guard perimeter scorers. He eventually garnered permission to rip the ball off the rim and initiate transition sprints. “In the beginning of the year he was Tragic Johnson,” Izzo says. “By the end... he was Magic.” Even still, the Jacksons drove four hours north from Indianapolis to deliberate their son’s future at year’s end. Bridges famously spurned the NBA for a second collegiate campaign one season earlier, and Jackson wanted to follow in those footsteps still fresh in the Michigan snow. His decision waffled to the point Jackson officially registered his housing with roommates for the fall semester. “There was a time where I really thought I was going back,” he says. “It’s a family environment,” adds Bridges. “It’s not like going to the league, being young and on your own.”

The Grizzlies deemed Jackson’s choice was obvious. As their 2017-18 season imploded from injury misfortune, dropping 14 out of 15 games after an encouraging 7-4 start, the front office narrowed its focus on lottery-level talent. By the end of December, Memphis had targeted eight players, the entire scouting department scouring each of their games. And even when they tumbled from the second lottery slot to the No. 4 pick in May, the Grizzlies resolved a high likelihood at grabbing the draft’s best player. Assuming Phoenix would select Deandre Ayton first, Memphis’ staff anonymously ranked Jackson, Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. in a laundry list of categories, from shooting and passing to rim protection and switchability. Jackson unanimously graded as the composite, premier giant. “He’s definitely a step ahead of most guys that age,” says head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

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After cementing Ayton to Phoenix at No. 1, Memphis slotted Jackson as its unquestioned best available prospect. Team executives posit, had Ayton been involved in their group study, Jackson still would have emerged as the organization’s prefered prodigy. When the Hawks nabbed Luka Doncic third, in conjunction with swapping the Slovenian to Dallas for the fifth pick and an additional first rounder, a portion of Memphis’s war room argued for selecting Trae Young fourth, strictly to hold the sharpshooting point guard ransome for Atlanta’s impending fifth selection. Yet knowing Atlanta leadership viewed Jackson as an enticing consolation to Young, the Grizzlies quickly abandoned any swindling attempt, and eagerly nabbed Jackson, erecting a bridge to a future era Memphis sorely lacked.

The Grizzlies projected adding Jackson to a roster that featured finally-healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley would yield a 50-win season. And when a fractured jaw sidelined forward JaMychal Green for a month, Memphis’ own Luffy entered the starting lineup just two games into his rookie campaign. Jackson’s flexible skill set instantly forged a symbiotic frontcourt pairing with Gasol. “Both of them can go inside out,” Bickerstaff says. “They can play with one another in high-low situations. You can mix and match. One guy can be a roller, one guy can be a spacer. You’re not stuck because one guy can’t do one or the other.”

The Grizzlies have surrendered only 93.4 points per 100 possessions in the 337 minutes Jackson and Gasol have shared the floor, seven points stingier than the league-best Oklahoma City Thunder. “They’ve been able to shut down the paint between the two of them,” Bickerstaff says. “They can switch things and still keep guys in front of them. And you know if you’re going in there, you’re going against some bodies in the paint protecting that rim.” When Green returned from injury, he beelined to Bickerstaff’s office and asked to play off the bench as the rookie’s understudy. Memphis staffers believe Jackson’s presence has contributed as much to Gasol’s career-year resurgence as the Spaniard’s sterling health.

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Gasol’s reverence for basketball purity has famously dominated Memphis’ culture. He balks at teammates devoid of elite on-court intelligence and scoffs at poor shot selection. And yet Gasol already admires Jackson’s savvy. “We allow him a lot of freedom offensively and kind of help him out and give him the ball where he feels more comfortable at,” Gasol says. “Defensively, we’ve been mostly energy, and been in the right place and played through mistakes. Don’t allow one possession or two possessions to carry on into four, five, six. We’re there to help him. And he’s helping us a lot, too.”

Foul trouble remains the lone blemish on his resume. He disqualified from four Michigan State bouts and committed 5.9 personals per 40 minutes. The hacks too frequently strapped Jackson to the Spartans’ bench, although Izzo now admits clipping the freshman’s minutes to such a degree burned State against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Somehow, Jackson’s foul rate has actually increased to 6.2 per 40 minutes in the NBA. A portion of the whistles are likely results of veteran-favoring officials, but Jackson will need to combine his superlative timing with superior body control on block efforts.

In the interim, he’ll swat five shots against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert’s Jazz. He’ll drop 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting against the Kings, who favored Bagley III at No. 2. He’ll bury three-pointers to send heated road battles into overtime, phoning Bridges after hanging 36 on the Nets, earnestly in disbelief of his own primitive brilliance. “Once he finds out how good he can really be, that’s when it’s going to get scary,” Bridges says. “I think he’s the best in our draft.”

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In the early chapters of One Piece, Shanks, Luffy’s childhood hero and the captain of the Red Hair Pirates, loses his left arm while saving the former from an evil Sea King monster. Before departing, Shanks gifts Luffy with the Straw Hat his former captain once passed down to him. The characters agree Luffy will return the cap upon becoming a great pirate of his own. The evolution promptly begins. “He does a lot. He leads his crew,” Jackson says. “He’s got super powers.” Gasol has yet to bequeath the Grizzlies franchise to his protege, but that process has indeed already commenced.

“He’s the guy who’s going to carry on with the franchise for the next 10, 15 years,” Gasol says. “So, I want to make sure that I leave it in good hands and the foundation of those things is crucial. It’s how you start, it’s what you stand for, those habits that you build early on, that’s gonna carry throughout your whole career. If we build him right and consistent, he should be great.”

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