PORTLAND, Ore. — Before he was a top-five NBA draft pick fearlessly sinking a three-point dagger over LeBron James, Jaren Jackson Jr. was a lanky child who realized early that he would need to get resourceful if he wanted to follow in his father’s professional footsteps. Dubbed “String Bean” by his parents, a preteen Jackson gazed through thick sports goggles at his shorter teammates, who forgot to feed the post.
“He wasn’t always going to get to touch the ball on the offensive side,” Terri Jackson said, recalling her son’s Maryland youth league games. “As a little boy, defense was his turn. He knew what to do to get the ball: Block the shot, get the rebound, go for a steal.”
When manning the back of a full-court press, Jackson jumped up and down with Kevin Garnett-like verve. In the half-court, he elbowed for rebounds and glided around the perimeter, stepping into passing lanes to launch fast breaks. “Most young players want to shoot,” Jaren Jackson Sr. said. “He wanted to stop people.”
As the younger Jackson grew to 6-foot-11 with a 7-4 wingspan, he filled out his offensive game, captured multiple high school state titles in Indiana, was named a McDonald’s all-American, and earned a scholarship to Michigan State, where he was named Big Ten defensive player of the year as an 18-year-old freshman. For the Memphis Grizzlies, long defined by a style known as “Grit and Grind,” Jackson was a natural fit.
But even the Grizzlies, who spent years scouting him before taking him fourth overall in June’s draft, have been taken aback by Jackson’s immediate impact. The 19-year-old forward has stepped in as a full-time starter on a team with serious playoff aspirations, averaging 13.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while delivering key late-game three-pointers and sharp defense. If not for Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic, Jackson would be the rookie of the year favorite.
How, exactly, does one arrive in the NBA as such a refined and determined two-way player?
Basketball in his DNA
Jackson has basketball bloodlines on both sides of his family, and his parents’ reputation preceded him in NBA circles. “Impressive family,” said Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who played with the elder Jackson on the San Antonio Spurs. “What he’s coming from is rock solid.”
The father was a defensive-minded, 6-4 shooting guard who played four years at Georgetown before bouncing around the minor leagues and filling fringe roles in the NBA. After paying his dues for nearly a decade, he finally earned consistent rotation minutes with the then-Washington Bullets in 1997. He then moved on to Gregg Popovich’s Spurs for the next four seasons, winning a title in 1999.
Terri, who wore that championship ring on her son’s draft night, graduated from Georgetown Law School before launching a legal career that has kept her directly involved in athletics. Since 2016, she’s worked for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and currently serves as its executive director.
“That’s what’s in my family ... We breathe basketball.”— Jaren Jackson Jr.
Their only child’s elementary school years were spent in Silver Spring, Md., but the family relocated to Carmel, Ind., when Terri was offered a job at the NCAA’s Indianapolis office. As their son grew, the Jacksons encouraged him to think for himself, engage in conversations with their adult friends, and hone his analytical nature in dinner-table debates. “Words matter,” Terri would tell her son, as the family played Bananagrams and argued over the lyrical merits of Jay-Z, Kanye West and Drake.
“When he was in nursery school, my mother told me that Jaren Jr. was smarter than me and my husband put together,” Terri said. “It wasn’t a wisecrack. He could always think two steps ahead.” If basketball hadn’t worked out, the Jacksons insist, their son would have been a lawyer like his mother.
“J. Junior” — his nickname after outgrowing “String Bean,” “Sweet Pea” and “Doodle Bug” — had other plans. During his junior year at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, he marched into an unsuspecting administrator’s office and matter-of-factly declared his intention to make the NBA.
“That’s what I always wanted,” Jackson said. “That’s what’s in my family. I take a lot from both my parents. My dad has the knowledge from playing basketball. My mom is very intelligent and knows the business perspective. We breathe basketball.”
On the court, Jackson led Park Tudor to multiple state championships before transferring to La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind., for his senior year. There, his father served as a volunteer assistant coach, keeping an eye on his son without smothering him. When it came time to select a college, the Jacksons let their son run the process. He picked Michigan State and Coach Tom Izzo, sensing a fit with his defense-first mentality.
Throughout Jackson’s youth, his father focused their player development work on maximizing his son’s utility. On offense, shooting drills started from the outside in so that he would be comfortable shooting NBA three-pointers. On defense, the father drew on his own playing style to emphasize lateral quickness and agility, knowing those attributes would carry extra value in a big man.
“Coaches have to decide midway through the fourth [quarter] whether their big men are liabilities,” he said. “I wanted to make sure there was never a reason to take my son out.”
He also listened to his son, understanding that he wasn’t simply grooming a mini-me. As he preached Spurs principles like selflessness, he nodded along as Jaren Jr. gawked at the aggressive athleticism of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Years before the term “unicorn” — a big man who can shoot from outside and protect the rim — became commonplace, Jaren Jackson Sr. was raising one.
Earning the keys to 'The Franchise’
Just as Jackson was choosing the Spartans, the Grizzlies began taking an interest. They got their first look at the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit, where Jackson posted 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Grizzlies were headed to the playoffs for the seventh straight year with veterans Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, and assumed Jackson would be off the board by the time they picked in 2018. Things changed quickly the following season, though, as Memphis fired coach David Fizdale and finished with a dismal 22-60 record.
As Doncic and other offensive-minded prospects dominated the pre-draft headlines, the Grizzlies zeroed in on Jackson with the No. 4 pick. They studied his college tape, noting his shot-blocking skills, vocal leadership and deft footwork. Memphis also examined his unorthodox shooting mechanics, concluding that he had sufficient touch to be a reliable perimeter threat.
For his part, Grizzlies Coach J.B. Bickerstaff marveled at Jackson’s season-high 27 points against the University of Minnesota, Bickerstaff’s alma mater. “He does the stuff defensively that doesn’t put you in the stat sheet or the newspaper growing up,” Bickerstaff said. “But he also had a high-level post game. He could score with either hand on the block and had the poise to operate in traffic.”
It helped that Bickerstaff’s father, Bernie, had coached Jaren Jackson Sr. with the Bullets. By the time they met Jackson late in the draft process, the Grizzlies were sold.
“Jaren didn’t have to do a whole lot of pitching in our meeting,” said John Hollinger, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations. “We thought about that pick as a foundational piece for the next 15 years, and he was the biggest talent we could get.”
The process of transforming Jackson from a talented teenager into a franchise player began in training camp. Bickerstaff matched Jackson against Gasol, a 33-year-old center who had grown from a draft prospect into an all-star and defensive player of the year during his 11-year career.
Gasol provided a frustrating welcome to the pros, repeatedly swiping the ball from Jackson as he tried to score in the post. “If this is what it’s going to be like, the NBA is going to be tough for me,” Jackson told teammate Garrett Temple.
While Jackson’s confidence briefly wavered, his coaches and teammates saw flashes of his prodigal talent. “He kept doing things we didn’t know he could do,” Gasol said. “At his age, I was carrying bags for FC Barcelona.”
Jackson, still a teenager, commanded respect by checking his goofy side at the door. When the rookie played through injuries, committed to studying opponents' tendencies, and made it through training camp without complaining about the schedule, Gasol was convinced he’d found a kindred spirit.
“I feel a responsibility to him, no doubt,” Gasol said. “I’ve invested most of my life into this franchise and they’ve invested in me. When you have a player with this potential, you must build him the right way. Show him how to prepare for games and let him know there will be no days off.”
The budding partnership reminded Jaren Jackson Sr. of his former Spurs teammates, with Gasol cast as the David Robinson-like mentor and the younger Jackson serving as the Tim Duncan-like understudy. After just three months, Jackson has already memorized a long list of Gasol’s tips: Never be stagnant, avoid indecisiveness and maintain a short memory so “one play doesn’t ruin the next.”
The Grizzlies speak glowingly of his future. Backup center Ivan Rabb compared him to a young Anthony Davis, while Temple called him “the baby brother who everybody knows is The Franchise.”
Those are weighty expectations for a teenager, but his parents are there to help. The Jacksons moved to a Memphis suburb, 20 minutes away from their son’s downtown apartment. Father and son catch up after games over text messages, with Jaren Sr. focusing on “positive talk” and reinforcing the Grizzlies’ coaching staff’s points. Terri’s influence remains too, as her son recently enrolled in online college courses for the spring semester. And, in his clearest nod to his mother, he volunteered to serve as one of the Grizzlies’ NBPA player representatives.
Bickerstaff and the Grizzlies front office, for their part, have allowed Jackson’s career to unfold organically. The rookie opened the season as a backup to veteran forward JaMychal Green, but an injury quickly cleared a starting spot. Although his father didn’t make his first NBA start until he was 27, the son started in his third pro game shortly after turning 19.
His season took off. In a late-November win over the Nets, Jackson had 36 points, joining James, Durant and Carmelo Anthony as the only active players to reach that scoring threshold before turning 20. Then, in a late-December road win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson scored 27 points, icing the game with a calm step-back three over James that snapped a five-game losing streak. The shot led the jubilant father to storm the court for a hug and prompted observers to embark on a fresh round of daydreaming.
“We never had to sit everyone down and have a big speech about Jaren being the franchise’s future,” Hollinger said. “It’s like, ‘Duh.’”
Only going up
Through 34 games, the Grizzlies are 18-16 -- better than expected, but possessing some rough edges. Similarly, Jackson enters 2019 knowing he belongs, but also understanding what separates him from established superstars.
When he fires up YouTube highlights, he gravitates to Davis. “He’s the best at my position,” Jackson said. “You want to be the best and try to do things that he does. If he has a nice move, I don’t copy it, but I try to see what he’s doing to be successful.”
To truly get where he wants to go, Jackson must cut down on foul trouble. He was leading the league in personal fouls through Wednesday and had already fouled out three times before Christmas. After a recent loss to Houston, he beat himself up for reaching in on James Harden. “His arms are so long he can’t control his hands,” Rabb joked.
As a result, the Grizzlies have alternated between Jackson and Green to close games, upsetting some fans who want to see the young prospect get repetitions. “He has to earn everything,” Bickerstaff said. “We don’t treat him differently, and it’s important to hold him accountable.”
Despite those hiccups, Jackson is a likely all-rookie first team selection whose success has received a fraction of the coverage given to Doncic. Unfortunately, Jackson checks all the boxes when it comes to getting overlooked: He plays in a small market, defense is his calling card and he has little interest in self-promotion.
“Attention comes and goes,” Jackson said of whether he would receive more notice if he played in a bigger market. “You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing whether or not people are watching. I want to be here in Memphis. I want to be where I’m wanted, and I’m wanted here.”
There are countless reasons to buy stock in Jackson’s future — his stylistic flexibility, his shooting range, his defensive activity, his physique, his respect for the game — but the best reason is his support structure, from his parents to Gasol to a Grizzlies organization that understands exactly what it has.
“His mind-set is to never be satisfied,” Gasol said. He then smirked and pointed his finger to the sky. “Look up and tell me if you see a ceiling.”