3 Reasons Memphis Has The Best Young Frontcourt In The NBA

By Matt Esposito

Among other things, the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis was known for being a religious cult center. After watching the tape on Jaren Jackson Jr and Brandon Clarke, I may just start up my own cult for these cutting-edge frontcourt players.

Although JJJ started next to Jonas Valančiūnas this season – an underated, albeit imperfect fit – the Grizzlies will likely experiment with pairing the former Michigan State stud next to Clarke. Given their complementary skill sets, measurables and athletic profiles, this could prove wise for Memphis. But what makes me so confident that this duo is the best young frontcourt tandem in the NBA? How about I give you three reasons.

I. Jaw-Dropping, Complementary Efficiency

Despite doing so in different ways, both Jackson and Clarke proved to be some of the most efficient scorers at their positions this year. According to Cleaning The Glass, Jackson is currently in the 85th percentile for total 3-point shooting this year and also places in the 84th percentile for non-corner triples.

Hitting such a high percentage on above-the-break 3-pointers solidifies JJJ’s prowess as a shooter. Other floor spacing bigs tend to begin their morphosis into a perimeter shooter by launching from the corner, as it is the shortest 3-pointer available. Jackson attempts only 10 percent of his shots there, opting to hit from further distance.

Most bigs nail their catch-and-shoot triples off of the pick and pop, which Jackson can certainly do (40.3 percent.) Having recognized this, Memphis has started to deploy him in other unique ways such as running him off of flare screens; a nightmarish scenario for opponents.

To be fair, Jackson has room for growth, as he hit a positionally subpar 65 percent of his at-rim attempts this season. Still, the volume and shooting percentage from deep is remarkable. His buddy, however, makes up for the struggles of at-rim finishing.

Somewhere, John Hollinger is crying tears of joy over Brandon Clarke’s efficiency. Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass once more, Clarke’s advanced numbers are marvelous.

drooling…

Ready for a Dad Joke? Orange you glad I put this chart in here? The biggest surprise of Clarke’s rookie year was his evolution as a 3-point shooter. Yet, he only takes one attempt per game from that range. A greater sample size is needed before definitively claiming him to be a floor stretcher.

His soft touch is evident in other ways, however. Clarke has impressed with his ability to knock down floaters among traffic. This one-hander while going away from the hoop only becomes sexier when you realize it was lofted over 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis.

Clarke’s efficiency complements Jackson’s perfectly. The former surely has a developing shooting touch but he is known for rim-running, while Jackson seems to be transitioning to relying more upon his perimeter game.

In fact, Clarke brings in an outstanding 1.48 PPP as a roll man, good enough to rank within the 94th percentile. His athleticism unlocks plays that JJJ would simply not be able to finish.

Although Clarke’s outside shooting has been a pleasant surprise, his stroke needs continued work. A larger sample size could reveal he still has a ways to go. Jackson, however, has cemented himself as one of the game’s premier shooting bigs. What’s more, Clarke’s other worldly hops help the Grizzlies maintain a strong vertical threat (more on this later) which only augments the perimeter spacing that Jackson provides.

II. Defensive Pliability & Potential

Early into their professional pairing, Jackson and Clarke have not found prolonged defensive success while sharing the court together. They’ve played 1049 possessions as a frontcourt duo and the results have been mediocre at best. Yet, their physical attributes hint that this will not always be the case. Joe Mullinax of SB Nation’s Grizzly Bear Blues provided some insight into the matter,

“Clarke struggles mightily when asked to eat those (center) minutes, and while Jaren is the center of the future for Memphis his foul issues and lack of physical strength make him ill-suited to be a “5” for prolonged stretches.

– Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues

But there is room for optimism. Jackson’s wingspan and fundamental wherewithal are well known. Additionally, most are aware that Clarke compensates for his lack of elite length by being an explosive leaper; often rejecting shots from the weakside. Mullinax continued to suggest that,

“their switchability on the perimeter and shot blocking skill at the rim project to elite front court defense…They have time on their side, and the physical ability is tantalizing. Reps and development take time.

– Mullinax

Hopefully, their on court chemistry will grow and allow for each to showcase their defensive strengths. For instance, Jackson is at his best when dropping into coverage and contesting low-value midrange shots which he helped to force.

He also relies on his IQ to direct traffic. You can see him doing so below. He tells his teammates to stay home on the opposing shooters, knowing that his length will erase any shot attempt at the rim.

Jackson’s fundamentals let him switch onto wings for stretches at a time. Conversely, Clarke’s strong frame and pogo stick legs allow him to switch onto beefier bigs. Watch our tandem perform this act below.

Clarke is the superior perimeter defender as well. He can legitimately guard positions 1-4 due to his agility and recovery speed. Not many players have the right mixture of length and quickness to both force Eric Gordon into a drive and then block it.

Due to their physical profiles and defensive acumen, these two should be able to hold their own against any frontcourt lineup. Sure, they need more time to gel. Fortunately, these two are still on their rookie deals and should be spending plenty of time together.

III. Sneaky Ability To Create For Others

The numbers may not suggest so, but the eye test says that Jaren Jackson has some potential as a facilitator. While it is not his primary job to do so, the big man has shown flashes of driving and dishing. Not many centers can use crossover-jabs to draw the D in before firing a tidy kickout pass.

Bigs like Jackson aren’t supposed to have the dexterity and vision to make the play below. This bodes very well for his future because you simply cannot teach someone how to have a feel for the game.

To boot, Jackson can sling crosscourt bullets from the post, displaying his poise under pressure. Contrarily, Clarke creates space for others when the ball is not in his hands due to his top tier vertical spacing.

Always the lob threat off of rolls, defenses stick close to Clarke. This often permits the ball handler to get off an easy floater or at-rim attempt. Both can be seen in the film below. After watching, it’ll be apparent why the Grizzlies take a ton of shots from the short midrange floater area and why they convert in the 96th percentile from there when Clarke is on the floor.

Recap & The Competition

Not only do Clarke and JJJ have either the skills or athletic gifts to pick up each other’s slack but, those traits align seamlessly with the ideals of a modern big. Clarke is the bouncy, switchable nolayupissafe guy who opens up lanes by being a lob threat. Jackson is the defensive quarterback who can stretch the court and possibly create for others.

I’m workshopping an “RP3s” positional nickname, standing for rim-protector & 3s. Will it take off? Not likely. But Jackson has. In fact, only two players ever in league history have shot at least 38 percent from deep on over five attempts per game while blocking a minimum of 1.5 shots per game. Jackson and some Kevin Durant guy are the two.

Do other young frontcourts rival Memphis’? The jury is still out on John Collins being good enough defensively to be a small ball center, although an eventual 4/5 pairing with him and De’Andre Hunter could be solid. A Markkanen/Carter duo could be exceptional if new management in Chicago allows it to be. Turner and Sabonis? Gordon and Isaac? Jokic and MPJ? Maybe Zion and Ingram each slide over a position.

Regardless, this pairing is one to keep an eye on. At times Clarke looks like someone dipped two scoops of Kenyon Martin in Shawn Marion sprinkles. Jaren Jackson will be an multiple time All-Star, looking like an even more modern version of Chris Bosh. Not a bad group of guys to put around Ja Morant, eh?

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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