2023 FIBA World Cup: Jaren Jackson Jr.'s elite rim protection and defensive presence come with a price

PASAY, METRO MANILA, PHILIPPINES - 2023/08/26: Jaren Jackson Jr. of the USA basketball team and Reuben Te Rangi of the New Zealand basketball team are seen in action during the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup 2023 match between USA and New Zealand at the MOA Arena. Final Score USA 99:72 New Zealand. (Photo by Earvin Perias/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Team USA's Jaren Jackson Jr. protects the rim against Reuben Te Rangi of the New Zealand basketball team during the 2023 FIBA World Cup matchup Saturday. (Photo by Earvin Perias/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — Saturday’s second-quarter sequence showcased the complete Jaren Jackson Jr. experience. His collection of rare gifts, plus the one foible the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year battles on that side of the floor.

With 1:46 remaining in the first half of Team USA’s victory over New Zealand in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Jackson meandered all the way out to halfcourt, helping U.S. starting point guard Jalen Brunson trap a Kiwi ball-handler. Then Jackson, all 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds of the Memphis Grizzlies All-Star, recovered back to the baseline in no time. There are few menacing shot blockers who can handle their own on the perimeter with the agility and quickness Jackson innately possesses.

“You gotta be able to switch and guard guards. It helps cause you don’t want to always be in a drop,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports, flipping a ball into the basket before Sunday morning’s Team USA practice. “You just have to sit down and get in a stance. You don’t want to because you’re tired, but that’s the job.”

Brunson, though, had also recovered to the basket, planting his feet in front of driving Tall Blacks forward Jordan Ngatai. Brunson absorbed the contact, drawing the whistle with his chest. And there was Jackson anyway, reaching for the rafters, skying above the entire play to swat Ngatai’s attempt. Jackson came crashing onto the hardwood, landing with an awkward thud, to the point Jackson remained on the floor for a breather, wringing his right wrist once he came back to his feet. Speaking of: the slow-motion replay revealed Jackson’s massive sneaker nearly squashed Brunson’s braids.

“He has the ability to block everything,” Team USA head coach Steve Kerr said. “But sometimes he needs to dial it back a little bit.”

Jackson was not called for a foul on the collision. In fact, four of Jackson’s five fouls, which ultimately disqualified the Americans’ starting center with 5:55 to play in the fourth quarter, came on questionable positioning and loose-ball calls. And yet Jackson was limited to only 16 minutes in Team USA’s tournament opener, forcing Kerr to rely on non-traditional reserve big man Paolo Banchero time and again.

If you’ve heard this theme regarding Jackson’s development into a two-way linchpin for the Grizzlies, you also may have watched the talented 23-year-old watch much of Memphis’ 2022 first-round playoff matchup with Minnesota from the bench. It was an issue against the Warriors the following series as well. Jackson was then mired in an odd habit this past season, frequently finding foul trouble during nationally televised games.

“He’s foul-prone in the NBA,” Kerr said. “So, there’s always one or two plays where you just want him to let it go, because he’s too important to us. So we share those clips and just remind him sometimes the best play is to just let the guy go and don’t pick up the foul.”

There was one classic bugaboo early in the second half against New Zealand. After Jackson shadowed the ball-handler’s path under the basket out of a pick-and-roll, he rotated back to Kiwi center Yanni Wetzell and bought the shot fake as Wetzell leaped into Jackson’s body for what became his third foul. Kerr quickly called on Banchero to relieve his starting center.

Jackson, though, remains unbothered by the trend. He says the Grizzlies coaches share that stance. “They don’t care either. Trust me, they don’t. They’re not worried about it all,” Jackson said. The Grizzlies want their backline beast hunting for prey at all times. “Go get it, man,” Jackson said. “It comes with it. If I’m gonna be less aggressive, I’m gonna have less blocks, I’m gonna bring less rim protection, and I’ma have less fouls with all that. Pick one or the other. Which one do you want? Do you want me to be great or not?”

After all, he has the hardware to prove his point. “I’m doing something right,” Jackson said of his Defensive Player of the Year honors. Like an uber-athletic wide receiver praised for his superior catch radius, Jackson’s combination of 7-foot-5 wingspan and elite athleticism can reject a wider range of shots than most. “I feel like I can get a lot done with my reach and my timing. I think a lot of people don’t have that.”

With Team USA, Jackson is playing more of a textbook center position than the two-big lineups in which he’s deployed with Memphis. The Americans are running the defensive scheme that Golden State used en route to four championships over the past nine seasons, asking Jackson to play up and switch and chase pesky perimeter playmakers. “Coach Kerr is using his system. It’s just more or less what Draymond [Green] would have ran or [Kevon] Looney, and just with better players,” Jackson said. “A lot of delay actions and stuff like that.”

But in FIBA, where players are afforded only five fouls instead of the six in NBA competition, Jackson’s weakness with the whistle is something he and the American coaches are clearly monitoring throughout the World Cup. It’s why Kerr made a point early in training camp to tell Banchero of his plan to slate Banchero as a big man, rather than his natural position on the wing.

“You know, you always gotta be conscious of it,” Jackson said, “and hopefully you can move past it.”