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Grizzlies Draft First Thoughts: Mike Conley Déjà Vu?

Early in last night’s draft, a friend texted me about the Grizzlies selection of Jaren Jackson Jr. at #4: “I hope Jackson isn’t another Conley — a consolation prize in a three-player draft who takes four years to pay off. I miss those three days when everyone was supposedly down on Doncic.”

If you believe in Luka Doncic, and I think I mostly do, it was disappointing not only to see him taken off the board right ahead of the Grizzlies, but then shipped to division rival Dallas, who picked right after them.

Couldn’t Memphis have made that deal with Atlanta? Assuming they would have wanted to — and we don’t know that — the answer is actually no. Dallas added a first round pick (protected top 5) for next summer. Because of the pick the Grizzlies already owe to Boston, the Grizzlies couldn’t offer a pick until at least 2021, and possibly one whose clock wouldn’t begin until 2023. Blame Jeff Green, for whom the Grizzlies surrendered this pick. Or the executive who surrendered it.

Could the Grizzlies have simply taken Atlanta’s target, Trae Young, at 4 and forced a deal? Who’s to say Atlanta wouldn’t have just made the same deal with Dallas for Jackson, whom the Hawks front office, rather than ownership, was reported to favor?

Let’s not bury the lead: The Hawks basketball people apparently really wanted Jackson at #3, not Young, and not Doncic. Maybe there’s a reason for that?

In the post-draft morning light, the Conley comparison, made ruefully, seems pretty apt.

Both Conley and Jackson were picked fourth overall and both were the first lottery picks after a multi-year playoff run. The first major pieces of a new era.

Both were in fact seen as consolation prizes behind starrier prospects ahead of them (for Conley, it was Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and Al Horford). Neither was a consensus pick in the eyes of fans. When Conley came off the board, many would have preferred Joakim Noah or Corey Brewer. For Jackson, Trae Young, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter, and especially Trade Down were perhaps more popular.

Both Conley and Jackson were one-and-done prospects who hadn’t always been considered likely to be, players who arrived in the NBA a little ahead of schedule, at a little higher draft slot than anticipated, and maybe a little before they were/are fully ready.

While playing at opposite ends of the positional spectrum, they are similar types of players: versatile, fundamentally sound two-way players with good instincts, more solid than flashy.

Both were/are smart young men from strong families, each the son of an athlete, each a “junior”: The elder Conley an Olympian, the elder Jackson a 13-year NBA vet.

Like Conley, Jackson isn’t going to show you everything he can be on opening night, or even in his opening season. Here’s hoping his ultimate development is a little less tedious than Conley’s. Here’s hoping it finds a similarly bountiful destination. That Conley pick worked out ok.

In the absence of persuasive trade-down options — and there don’t appear to have really been any — this is the pick I would have made. From my own draft board comments last week:

  1. Jaren Jackson Jr.: The best defensive prospect in the draft, and that end of the floor still exists. Jackson has the length and instincts to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate down the road, a big man who can blow up pick-and-rolls, switch onto guards and wings, and swat shots at the rim. Offensively, he’s a work in progress, but 40/80 three-point/free-throw shooting is a nice start. There were flashes in college of long off-the-bounce strides from the three-point line to (above) the rim. Here’s betting there’s a lot more of that to come. I think he’s ultimately a center, but foot speed and shooting range give him versatility. I think he can play with Marc Gasol in the short term.

Jackson’s combination of shot-blocking and shooting at a young age is very rare. You can slice those indicators different ways and come up with some narrow and/or impressive lists. How many college freshman have ever averaged 3 blocks a game while shooting better than 35 percent from the three-point line and better than 75 percent from the free-throw line? Jaren Jackson. That’s the list.

Put together some advanced stats indicators on both offensive and defensive impact as a freshman, and it spits out a longer list with some enticing comps. Jackson is easily the most advanced three-point shooter on this list.

Jackson is the very model of a modern major big man. Space the floor, defend the half court from stem to stern, from 1 to 5. That’s what he offers. Will he create a lot of offense for himself with the ball? Maybe not.

He also probably won’t be a major impact player as a rookie, at least in terms of his stat lines. You can take offense at this, but it’s probably accurate:

Does Jackson’s selection run counter to the Grizzlies’ front office and ownership talk of being back in the playoffs next season, of winning 50 games? Yes, and some fans seem angry about that. I’d suggest relief instead. The Grizzlies can use free agency or the trade market to try to shore up their competitive hopes this season. This pick needed to be about the future. They needed to take the best long-term prospect available to them. I believe they did that.

I’m not sure that’s the case with the team’s second-round pick at number 32, where the team took college veteran backup point guard candidate Jevon Carter over some higher-upside candidates (Khyri Thomas, Melvin Frazier, De’Anthony Melton). Carter’s a bulldog but I’m not even sure he was the best backup point guard candidate on the board. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, a better shooter and passer, went next, again to Dallas. They will make for an interesting comparison this season.

The Grizzlies will introduce Jackson and Carter at 2 p.m. today at FedExForum.

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