Each year, the NBA Draft is one of the biggest events in sports—especially from a non-competition standpoint. Teams researching, hosting workouts, and eventually expending valuable draft picks in hopes of netting a franchise cornerstone. It’s no secret that the upcoming draft is widely seen as the weakest talent pool in over 20 years (likely since 2000), which is why every lottery team should be hunting for the next diamond in the rough. Consider the Memphis Grizzlies’ approach after going 51-31 and finishing second in the Western Conference last season. They could’ve followed other contenders and simply draft an older rookie who could potentially crack their rotation. Instead, they opted to swing for the fences and take the youngest prospect from the entire draft in GG Jackson.

The organization’s entire direction shifted immediately upon the 25-game suspension for Ja Morant, and again following Morant’s labral tear. It’s worth noting that Jackson appeared in zero games during Morant’s nine-game stretch (and only logged 18 total minutes prior to this period). The Grizzlies were sitting at 12-23 with their superstar sidelined and no real optimism for the next three months. Add in injuries for Desmond Bane, Marcus Smart, and Brandon Clarke, and they were faced with a difficult dilemma: keep battling to inevitably be a lottery team or aggressively tank in a historically bad draft year?

Courtesy of NBAE

Instead of prioritizing either, they found several meaningful pieces within their roster. Discovering Vince Williams and Santi Aldama’s value as difference-makers will help their roster construction for the foreseeable future. That being said, Jackson’s emergence was arguably the most important subplot of the Grizzlies’ season. Among his draft class, 45th pick finished the season ranked third in points per game and tenth in rebounds per game. Due to the struggling nature of the team, his advanced numbers are somewhat blurred right now. However, based on the eye test, Jackson exceeded any possible expectations for an 18-year-old rookie taken in the second round.

Even at the time, Jackson’s drop on draft boards was perplexing. Between his age and strong production as a freshman in the SEC, there was no real explanation for this occurrence. Following the Summer League, we wrote the following, “The youngest player in the draft falls to the middle of the second round, yet there’s no real reason or explanation as to why GG Jackson wasn’t a bigger priority to more teams. Perhaps it’s due to some questions regarding maturity, but folks can rest assured knowing Jackson is not a bad teammate or locker room guy. Again, he’s the youngest player in this draft. His numbers at South Carolina were quite impressive, especially as someone forced to burden such a heavy load as freshman. In the NBA, Jackson should outperform his draft position by being a matchup problem for opposing forwards. He’s a polished, versatile scorer with the ability to apply pressure in a variety of different ways. Depending on the timeline for Brandon Clarke’s return, don’t be surprised to see Jackson earn some playing opportunities.”

While it can be unfair to compare individual stats without context, we are going to do it anyway. Below is the production from four rookie forwards over the recent years:

Player A (29.4 MPG): 16.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.3 BPG, 0.6 SPG with 53/37/79 splits

Player B (29.7 MPG): 15.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.6 BPG, 0.6 SPG with 43/36/84 splits

Player C (28.7 MPG): 16.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 BPG, 0.5 SPG with 43/36/75 splits

Player D (35.4 MPG): 15.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.7 BPG with 49/30/74 splits

Wins and losses matter, but so many of these rookie campaigns are meant to detect ability rather than chasing playoff spots. Player A is Chet Holmgren, Player B is Lauri Markkanen, Player C is Jackson, and Player D is Scottie Barnes. Jackson’s numbers presented above are slightly different than his actual “season averages,” but that’s after removing his first six appearances where he only logged 29 total minutes.

It’s pretty clear that Jackson is going to be a major foundational piece for the Grizzlies going forward, but it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in their structure when fully healthy. They still need another presence like Steven Adams (whom they traded), but the core of Morant, Bane, GG Jackson, Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Luke Kennard, Vince Williams, and Santi Aldama is undeniably enticing. Hopefully this situation will encourage teams to take chances on low-risk/high-reward players like Jackson, especially entering a bad draft where almost every intriguing prospect should be closely considered.

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