Jaren Jackson

What to watch for: Bulls return home for second matchup of the season with Memphis Grizzlies

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USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls return home for second matchup of the season with Memphis Grizzlies

After a three-game west coast swing, the Bulls are back home for a matchup with the 6-14 Memphis Grizzlies. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here’s what to watch for:

Grizzlies’ last five games (1-4)

  • Dec. 2 — L vs. Pacers: 117-104

  • Dec. 1 — W at Timberwolves: 115-107

  • Nov. 29 — L vs. Jazz: 103-94

  • Nov. 27 — L vs. Clippers: 121-119

  • Nov. 25 — L at Pacers: 126-114

One storyline for each team

These Grizzlies — who the Bulls have seen already this season in a 110-102 win in Memphis on Oct. 25 — are a young, feisty rebuilding group. But tonight, they’ll be without both of their promising 2019 first-round picks: franchise centerpiece and presumptive ROY favorite, Ja Morant (back spasms) and Brandon Clarke (hip). Still, Jaren Jackson Jr., athletic, sharp-shooting and uber-versatile defensively, is a glimpse into the future of the center position and a must-watch whenever he comes to town. Dillon Brooks is a savvy scorer quietly enjoying a career year.

But, back home (where they're 3-7 on the season) after a week on the West Coast, this remains a game the Bulls should win. The Zach LaVine/Lauri Markkanen combination will be at the center of everybody’s attention. The two had simultaneously productive outings in Monday night’s win in Sacramento, each scoring 20 points in the same game for the first time this season. LaVine had 37 points in their last matchup with Memphis, Markkanen shot 4-for-15, scoring nine.

“I think me and him started doing some more two-man game stuff, even if we had to break a little bit of offense up,” LaVine said after the Kings game. “Two-man game with me and him is deadly because if they’re helping off me, they’re going to leave a great shooter open. I’m excited.”

Before that game, LaVine had assisted 13 Markkanen field goals this season, none on pick-and-pop possessions. That two-man game developing could be transformational for the Bulls’ offense. Look out for it tonight.

Player to watch: Jaren Jackson Jr.

Depending on the availability of Jonas Valanciunas, Jackson could start at the five tonight, matching him up with draft classmate Wendell Carter Jr. Jackson is coming off his highest-scoring performance of the season, a 31-point effort against the Pacers on Monday:

His ball-handling ability and shooting prowess present a whale of a defensive challenge for Carter. But, like Carter, he often struggles with foul trouble — Jackson is tied for the league lead in personal fouls per game (4.1), Carter tied for second with four — and isn’t the strongest rebounder for his size. He’s currently averaging only 4.8 rebounds per game, and Cleaning the Glass ranks him in the 17th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage for his position.

Back in October, he did log a double-double (23 points, 11 rebounds) against the Bulls. The battle between he and Carter is sure to be entertaining all night.

Battle to watch: Lauri Markkanen vs. frontcourt

Bulls fans, though, should perhaps keep a closer eye on Markkanen’s matchup against Memphis’ frontcourt. The last time these two teams met, Markkanen appeared to struggle with the defensive length and athleticism the Grizz threw at him, mustering one of his worst shooting performances of the season. Tonight, though, Memphis will be without Brandon Clarke (25 minutes on Oct. 25) and possibly Valanciunas (18 minutes on Oct. 25).

Without the two of them, head coach Taylor Jenkins has rolled with a smallish, stretchy lineup of late, that features Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder at the forward spots. Crowder is a bulldog that backs down from no one, and Jackson behind him is one of the more dynamic shotblockers in the league, but if Markkanen’s bounceback night in Sacramento is going to catalyze a turnaround, this is a matchup he has to win.

Side note: Coby White showed out against the Grizzlies earlier in the season, scoring 25 points (11 in the fourth quarter). Big Coby nights are appointment television, and he could find opportunity to get going again in this one. 

Injury/miscellaneous updates

As mentioned, Morant and Clarke both won’t play for Memphis, tonight. Kyle Anderson (heel) is officially questionable, and head coach Taylor Jenkins called Valanciunas (illness), who has missed the last two games, a gametime decision.

Per Jim Boylen, both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison will undergo follow-up MRIs today and will remain inactive until further notice. Barring an unforeseen development, there’s no reason to believe Boylen will turn away from Kris Dunn in the starting lineup until one or both of those two return.

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Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Vincent Goodwill's post-Lottery mock draft: How will the first 14 picks play out?

Vincent Goodwill's post-Lottery mock draft: How will the first 14 picks play out?

1. Phoenix Suns — Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona: Best player in the draft, even if at a weird position.

2. Sacramento Kings — Luka Doncic, G/F, Slovenia: International man of mystery has been playing pro ball overseas for years. Perhaps he translates to position-less basketball.

3. Atlanta Hawks — Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke: Obvious pick, but here’s where the fun begins.

4. Memphis Grizzlies — Jaren Jackson, F, Michigan State: Some scouts believe long-term, he’ll be the best player in the draft. Big time upside, versatility.

5. Dallas Mavericks — Michael Porter, F, Missouri: If — and it’s a big if — the medicals check out, the Mavericks can take a chance on the talented wing. If.

6. Orlando Magic — Trae Young, G, Oklahoma: Who knows if Collin Sexton is a better player, but Young brings star power to a franchise in need of it.

7. Chicago Bulls — Mo Bamba, PF/C, Texas: Some scouts see Bamba with better defensive instincts than Ayton. Tempted to reach for a wing, though.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers — Wendell Carter, F/C, Duke: Talented inside scorer overshadowed by more heralded teammate. Sound familiar to this particular franchise?

9. New York Knicks — Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State: Tough and talented swingman who can score from variety of places, attributes Knicks need.

10. Philadelphia 76ers — Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova: Swingman in their own backyard too much to pass up for up-and-coming 76ers.

11. Charlotte Hornets — Collin Sexton, G, Alabama: Quick, aggressive and still growing into future position. Hornets need a jolt and possible replacement if Kemba Walker departs via trade.

12. Los Angeles Clippers — Robert Williams, F, Texas A&M: Intriguing athletic big man with plenty of upside. But expect the Clippers to dangle this pick and the next one.

13. Los Angeles Clippers — Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky: Versatile forward with ability to hit a shot and get a shot. Not as common as it seems.

14. Denver Nuggets — Lonnie Walker, G, Miami: Can he play right away on a team with playoff aspirations? Could be a project of sorts given his age, but plenty of gifts that could develop.