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NBA Daily: Grizzlies Still A Step Behind Despite Strong Start For Jackson, Jr.

Jaren Jackson, Jr. is off to a great start at the pro level but Memphis is still mired by missed opportunities, writes James Blancarte.

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The 2018 NBA Draft got off to an interesting start when the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks executed a trade centered around Luka Doncic and Trae Young. There were several other deals that took place on draft night, but one of the rumored deals involving the Memphis Grizzlies did not materialize. Grizzlies fans are certainly happy about this considering the early Summer League performance of Jaren Jackson, Jr., who was selected by Memphis with the No.4 overall pick.

Leading up to the draft, there had been rumors that the Memphis Grizzlies might be looking to shed Chandler Parsons’ burdensome contract by attaching the rights to their lottery selection to facilitate the deal. That trade never took place and Memphis still has Jackson, Jr. as a result. On July 2, Grizzlies fans got their first taste of Jackson, Jr. in action in his Summer League debut and he did not disappoint.

Jackson, Jr. stole the show as he put up 29 points on 8-13 shooting from three to go along with three rebounds and two blocks in his professional debut. Jackson, Jr. was able to score out of catch and shoot, pick and pop and off the dribble opportunities from distance, as well as a 35-foot buzzer beating three to end the first half. Many of Jackson’s shots were somewhat contested as the Hawks were slow to adapt to Jackson’s ability to score from deep despite his somewhat awkward release. Jackson’s explosive debut stood out in contrast to that of No. 5 pick Trae Young, who shot one for 11 from three against Jackson.

Despite Jackson’s three-point explosion, he only came up with three rebounds and occasionally looked lost on the court. However, after one game, this is mostly nitpicking rather than something to be concerned with long-term. In fact, Jackson followed up the next day by leading his team in rebounds while going 2-4 from three and getting the win against Utah.

Fans should take into account Summer League success does not serve as a reliable indicator of regular season and overall career success. Regardless, it’s hard not be excited about a player that can fit the modern game so well. Jackson, Jr. possesses the size, length, athleticism, versatility and outside shooting that all fit in so well with the modern pace-and-space, switch everything mindset that currently prevails in the NBA.

However, enthusiasm for the talent and potential of Jackson, Jr. does not cure all that ails in Memphis. Last season he franchise struggled to deal with the simmering tension between franchise cornerstone center Marc Gasol and head coach David Fizdale. When a conflict between a marquee player and a coach occurs, the prevailing wisdom is the coach is replaceable, while marquee players are not. Accordingly, Fizdale was fired early last season.

The issue between the two was far from the only major issue facing the franchise and the firing predictably didn’t result in a dramatic improvement on the court. In addition to Gasol, guard Mike Conley and Parsons made up two of the team’s top three salary earners and were originally intended to help form the team’s big three. Instead, Conley only played 12 games last season in an injury riddled campaign and Parsons once again struggled with the chronic injuries that have turned him from one of the league’s best values into an albatross financially.

Instead of Conley and Parsons, the team relied on the surprising play of Tyreke Evans as well as younger players such as Dillon Brooks, Jarell Martin, Andrew Harrison and JaMychal Green. The team made its way through the season without the talent to make any realistic run for the postseason. While the team ended up with Jackson, Jr., they arguably could have made moves to better position themselves for a much needed rebuild.

There have been calls to trade Gasol who has been less than thrilled about the situation in Memphis. Now, that possible trade appears less likely with his age (33) at a time when centers are not in high demand and the market is stagnant. Conley and Parsons both present difficulties being traded as well considering their respective contracts, age and injury histories.

Count Evan’s recent free agent departure among those missed opportunities. The team was so close to trading him at the midway point last season that he was sent home pending the completion of a deal. A trade never materialized and he never really reengaged with the team, appearing in only a handful of contests after the trade deadline. Now Evans departs with nothing to show for it — neither a trade, nor his re-signing.

Of course, not acting aggressively and trading the pick used to select Jackson, Jr. is a win and he now stands as the most important building block for the future. The team also added forward Omri Casspi in a smart move that adds a capable wing player who can shoot effectively from deep and is an acceptable defender when healthy.

Despite these positive transactions, the team needs more talent. Even with their stars healthy and a modest infusion of talent, the team has a small change of making the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. Looking forward, the team is caught between the present and future. Strive to be competitive and the team’s 2019 first round pick becomes an issue. The pick is top-eight protected and should the team be even moderately successful, it may end up being conveyed to the Boston Celtics.

There are a lot of factors to consider for the Grizzlies. This is a team that has enjoyed sustained success for the better part of a decade and wants to maintain some degree of comparable success. However, by hesitating to make trades featuring their stars and veterans, the Grizzlies have seemingly missed their best opportunity to clear the deck, acquire assets and move forward with players like Jackson, Jr. as the team’s priority. The Grizzlies are one of a handful of teams that don’t have a clear path forward. However, what is clear is that Jackson, Jr. has a bright future in the NBA and should be a focal point for the team moving forward.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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