Memphis Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr. is just 20, but you’d never know it based on his production or how he carries himself. The sophomore is averaging career-highs across the board including 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 threes and 1.7 blocks. He and Ja Morant have formed a terrific one-two punch in Memphis, which is a big reason why the Grizzlies have the eighth-best record in the Western Conference (despite being projected as bottom-feeders in the preseason).
HoopsHype sat down with Jackson at MTN DEW’s Courtside Studios in Chicago to discuss the Grizzlies’ success, his chemistry with Morant, his upbringing, the All-Star festivities, his development and much more.
You come from a basketball family – your father played in the NBA and your mother was involved on the business side (with the NCAA and now the Women’s National Basketball Players Association). How much has their insight helped you over the years?
Jaren Jackson Jr.: I think the fact that they did those things just added to the level of knowledge that I had in my bank. From a young age, I was given all of the secrets and the ins and outs of this. They didn’t push me into basketball; they let me do it on my own. But they always had the answers, so if I had any questions, I could come to them – with my mom knowing the business side so well and with my dad playing at all three levels.
Like your father, you’re a very good defender. What were some of the biggest lessons that you learned from your father and how did he influence your game?
JJJ: Just his heart for the game and his tenacity. We’re definitely both defensive-minded. You have to be able to shoot and you have to be able to play defense because you don’t want to be a liability out there. At the end of the day, my dad did all of that and he won a ring doing it [with the 1999 San Antonio Spurs]. I can take so much away from him.
I know your family used to call you “String Bean” before your huge growth spurt.
JJJ: Ha, yeah!
When did you hit your growth spurt and take that next step as a player?
JJJ: I probably hit my growth spurt during freshman year or toward the end of freshman year. It was probably because, I don’t know, I was eating a lot of broccoli or something (laughs). Then, I just grew. I was about 6-foot-5 and then I became 6-foot-10 real quick, so I had to figure out how not to trip over myself all the time (laughs). Once I got all of that together, I was good!
You made an immediate impact as a rookie, but there’s no question that you’ve made huge strides over the last year and a half. How much do you feel you’ve improved from your first day in the NBA to now?
JJJ: I think a lot. I’m just getting more comfortable with the game and things are really slowing down for me. I’m better at my decision-making and better at little things like my shot prep and getting my shot off. At the end of the day, I love to compete, so that’s going to carry me. I’m still getting better and I’m nowhere near where I want to be at all. But it’s been a good start for me.
This Grizzlies team is currently in the eighth seed out West and there’s a real chance that you guys could make the playoffs this year. How motivating was it to have everyone count you guys out prior to the season and how nice is it to silence those doubters now?
JJJ: It was definitely motivating because nobody really thought that we’d be in this position at this point. People just said to us, “Oh, you have time. Don’t worry about it! You’re young!” We kind of were just like, “We don’t care.” That’s how we play and how we are – we just don’t care. When we go out there, you have to put five on the court just like we have to put five on the court. It don’t matter if you’re young or old. There’s only one basketball. You have to literally beat us down if you want to win this game against us because we like to compete. We’ll have off nights, for sure. But at the end of the day, we’re going to play hard.
You’ve formed an excellent duo with Ja Morant. Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian wrote something interesting: If the Grizzlies make the postseason, this would be the first time in NBA history that a playoff team’s top-two scorers are both 20 years old or younger. What has it been like teaming up with Ja and developing alongside each other?
JJJ: It’s been crazy, man. Our chemistry really started off the court because we weren’t really playing in Summer League, so we really had that whole time to just hang out. From there, it was a very smooth transition once we got on the court together just because we were already so cool with each other. We were just able to mesh really well.
I’ve talked to Tony Allen about how Grit-and-Grind basketball really resonated with the fans since Memphis is a blue-collar city. You’re defensive-minded and you have a great work ethic, so do you feel like your style of play vibes nicely with Memphis too?
JJJ: Yeah, I was there for some of the Grit-and-Grind stuff last year and that’s a staple. It’s just that now it’s next-gen so it’s little bit different, but it’s still the same sort of mentality. We definitely take defense really seriously and that’s our staple. And when you make that your staple, you usually win.
Who were some of the veterans who have helped you the most – on or off the court – since you’ve entered the NBA?
JJJ: Last year, it was guys like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack. As far as guys who are on my team now, it’s Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas. Honestly, everyone loves to share information and everyone loves to give you advice (even if they’re on a different team). It’s a brotherhood, man. This is our league and we want to protect it.
I saw the video of you surprising Marc Gasol at the NBA Finals. It was cool to see you guys reconnect after the trade.
JJJ: Yeah, Marc is my guy!
We’re here at MTN DEW’s Courtside Studios. Did you get a chance to look at all three floors and what do you think of this event?
JJJ: The set-up is just incredible – the way they used the space and the way they were able to incorporate the fans. Getting involved with MTN DEW Courtside Studios has been great. It gives you a chance to connect with everyone, gives you a chance to have some lighthearted fun and gives fans a different side of the game of basketball – just showing the human side of it.
I feel you and Ja Morant are both on track to become All-Stars. After being around the All-Star Weekend festivities, are you even more motivated to reach that level?
JJJ: Oh, definitely. I’m motivated all year to get to that point, but being around great pedigree and great players, it definitely makes you want to play on that day. That’s what you keep striving for.