Eight months ago, Josh Jackson was in the fast lane out of the NBA. Now he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Just par for the course for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Given Jackson’s trajectory at the end of last season, you’d be forgiven for presuming this game was happening in the G-League. Or overseas. Or at the YMCA. But it took place between two NBA teams, two NBA teams currently slated for the playoffs.
Things were looking grim for Jackson’s career as recently as last summer. The 4th overall pick of the NBA Draft just two years prior, he’d played himself out of favor with the perpetually awful Phoenix Suns. He drew national profile for the first time since college when he was arrested at the Rolling Loud festival.
The Suns wanted to dump him so badly that they gave Memphis DeAnthony Melton and two picks just to take him off their hands. With tons of wiggle room in their rebuild, Memphis grabbed the hot potato and gambled on Jackson redeeming himself.
They kept him at arm’s length at first. Jackson spent 26 games in the G-League, dropping 20/7/4 for the 2nd-place Memphis Hustle. He was humble, patient, and disciplined; proving himself a reduced combustion risk, who could still play basketball well.
As Jackson told The Undefeated’s Marc J Spears:
“I’ve been in a really good place. I have been just focusing on getting better at my game, becoming more of a professional and getting a routine.”
Josh Jackson didn’t get much time to settle into his routine. He was called up to the Grizzlies on January 27th, right before Memphis’ entire frontcout was about to be traded or get injured.
Jackson was thus thrust into a rotation role immediately, and with little buffer time, has actually looked pretty good.
And it’s not just the Hawks Jackson has shown out against. He put 13 up on the Pelicans in his second game, hung 20 on the Lakers in a win, and again, just led Memphis in scoring in a blowout victory over Brooklyn.
The numbers, admittedly, don’t fly off the page. Jackson’s per-36 stats are startlingly similar to his years in Phoenix. But taken in context, it’s more impressive to be maintaining that production on a playoff team than a stats-amorphous mess like the Suns.
Jackson is posting a career-best 51.4 TS%, while steadily improving his putrid box plus-minus ratings. While not outstanding, these stats support the eye-test theory that he’s starting to figure things out. He’s attacking confidently, has become a plus defender, and, because most of us probably forgot, is barely 23.
That this is happening both should and shouldn’t be surprising. It should be, because Jackson was trending down violently when Memphis traded for him. It shouldn’t be, because Memphis has been so consistent in their ability to mine talent on the NBA’s fringes.
Josh Jackson’s return to NBA relevance is yet another in a long line of Grizzlies breakouts this season. Memphis seems like almost a contagious environment for over-performance, and it has spread to perhaps its least-certain candidate.
That Jackson would even be on an NBA roster this soon again seemed questionable, let alone making valuable contributions to a playoff team.
Memphis declined his rookie contract’s fourth year, making him a unrestricted free agent in July. Whether the Grizzlies are able to retain him or he signs elsewhere, Jackson has likely played himself into another deal.
And Memphis yet again has solidified itself as a productive culture for broken careers. Better yet, Zach Kleiman continues to prove himself a shrewd trader with a keen eye for talent. Jackson, whether he stays or goes, can only represent more hope for the future.