MikeCheck: Morant, Jackson to unlock ‘scary’ next level as Grizzlies build on breakout season

MikeCheck: Morant, Jackson to unlock ‘scary’ next level as Grizzlies build on breakout season

MEMPHIS – Scary!

That essentially says it all.

And that’s the key word Ja Morant used when asked to describe the impact he and Jaren Jackson Jr. will have on the court together for the Grizzlies when the talented young tandem starts to really put it together. After three NBA seasons as teammates, Morant and Jackson believe they’re only just beginning to reveal how dominant their bond can be for this franchise.

As Morant exits a breakthrough 2021-22 season, one of his biggest takeaways is the glimpse of promise he and Jackson flashed early in the Western Conference semifinals against Golden State.

Both Morant and Jackson posted 30-point efforts in Game 1, combining for 67 points, 19 rebounds, 11 assists and three steals. They knocked down 10-of-20 attempts from 3-point range and shot 48.9 percent overall from the field to open the series against the Warriors.

Memphis came up just short in a one-point loss that night. But a larger point was made as the Grizzlies’ catalyst reflected after the season on the long game moving forward.

“I feel like we showed good signs early on in this series, and the first couple of games I played, about how special we can be with both of us on the floor together,” Morant said of growing with Jackson as they shifted focus toward offseason improvements. “It’s just a matter of time before it’s real scary for everybody once we’re actually clicking.”

Finding effective ways for one of the NBA’s most dynamic young duos to start “clicking” more consistently next season is a top priority for Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins. A major step toward developing that click requires Morant and Jackson to stick on the floor together.

The fact that Morant and Jackson enter the offseason without any major injury or recovery concerns is a significant boost. Morant and Grizzlies top basketball executive Zach Kleiman confirmed earlier this week that the knee bone bruise that sidelined Morant for the final two games of the 4-2 series loss to Golden State wouldn’t require offseason surgery.

After a few weeks of “offloading” and rest, Morant plans to get back to work on his game and his body coming off a season in which he finished sixth in MVP voting, won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and averaged 27.1 points, 9.8 assists and 8.0 rebounds in the playoffs.

Expect Morant to remain connected on the summer workout trail with Jackson, who’s coming off the best and healthiest season of his four-year career after playing in 78 regular-season games and all 12 playoff contests.

We’re always on the same page, always locked. Mentally, we’ve always had the same goals since Day 1, so it’s been easy to click on and off the court. There’s a lot to be positive about and to think about. But there’s so much more to do, we’re still young. We’re going to strive more, and this is a good foundation for us.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Injuries and rehab stints have limited Jackson and Morant to 135 of a possible 247 games they could have played together since Morant entered the league as the No. 2 overall pick in 2019. Last season, with Morant mostly healthy, Jackson missed all but a dozen games before recovering from knee surgery to finish the season.

This season, Morant missed 27 games to injuries while Jackson was the team’s most durable player and finished as the NBA’s leader in total blocked shots. But there’s optimism that the stars will align for the pair of 22-year-old, franchise cornerstones.

“You saw the Warriors series, even all year, what we can do,” Jackson said of the tandem’s upside when available. “We’re always on the same page, always locked. Mentally, we’ve always had the same goals since Day 1, so it’s been easy to click on and off the court. There’s a lot to be positive about and to think about. But there’s so much more to do, we’re still young. We’re going to strive more, and this is a good foundation for us.”

Jenkins has seen a large enough sample size to unlock the next layers of development for Morant and Jackson. The Grizzlies have also built an ideal supporting cast around the two superstars, with second-year guard Desmond Bane and rookie lottery pick Ziaire Williams contributing to the NBA’s second-youngest roster posting the league’s second-best record.

Ziaire Williams and Desmond Bane
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – MARCH 08: Ziaire Williams #8 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images.

Having matched the franchise’s best record at 56-26 – including a 20-5 mark in games Morant was sidelined – there’s reason for excitement about where this team can end up with good health.

“Trying to put a full season together is a big first step in that direction, and we’ve got more of a sample size of that for sure,” Jenkins said. “The connection they can have on the offensive end – I’m always trying to come up with ways to get them involved in different actions and what it might be. I think they’re starting to get that sixth sense wavelength over time. I’m starting to see it more, and you can see it on the floor.”

Jenkins can’t wait to work on more schemes this offseason to activate Jackson and Morant in unison. Even after delivering historic production amid career seasons, both players emerged from exit interviews with comprehensive notebooks of offseason improvements to make.

“You see all these pages? It’s long,” Jackson quipped as he pointed at his development packet. “(Jenkins) expects a lot of me and I expect a lot of myself, so we’re on the same page there.”

That’s going to be one of my biggest tasks of the summer – continue to understand how I’m going to unlock those guys amongst all the great depth we have. But when Ja and Jaren are leading the charge, that’s my responsibility to figure out better ways.

Taylor Jenkins

The goal is to add more sustainable and productive moments to the script.

The Grizzlies are 75-60 in the 135 games Morant and Jackson have played together since 2019, with Morant averaging 22.5 points, 7.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Meanwhile, Jackson has contributed 15.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in those contests.

They’ve both scored 20 or more points in the same game 22 times, including twice in the playoffs. The Game 1 output against Golden State was their most productive postseason game together. As Morant suggested, it only provided a hint of how scary this combo is.

“Those guys are pillars of what we do on both ends of the floor,” Jenkins said. “That’s going to be one of my biggest tasks of the summer – continue to understand how I’m going to unlock those guys amongst all the great depth we have. But when Ja and Jaren are leading the charge, that’s my responsibility to figure out better ways.”

The best is ahead of them both. Especially if they remain hungry and can stay healthy.

“So now it’s just about getting the reps (because) we know what each other wants, we know what we’re looking for,” Morant insisted. “I don’t want to say it’s a one-two punch, because we have a lot of guys who jump in as well and throw punches. It’s going to be scary, but we’ve got to continue to lead. Lead us to wins and lead us to a championship.”

With Jackson locked into a contract extension that kicks in next season and Morant eligible to sign his own max extension this summer, the commitment is there.

So is the connection. A scary one.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.