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MikeCheck: Jackson Jr. ‘excited to be back’ as Grizzlies All-NBA defender eyes season debut

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NEW ORLEANS – After pushing through the last reps of an on-court drill, Jaren Jackson Jr. grabbed a basketball and jogged toward the halfcourt line at Washington’s Capital One Arena.

On his first attempt, Jackson heaved the ball high into the air, slumped his shoulders and watched because it fell swiftly through the web nearly 50 feet away.

MEMPHIS, TN – MAY 1: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots a 3 point basket through the game against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 1, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

It was the right punctuation to a perspiration-drenched workout. It was also the most recent encouraging evidence that the Grizzlies’ star big man is approaching the purpose of return. After emphatically nailing the last shot of his most up-to-date public workout, the one query remaining is when will Jackson get his first shot to return to the Grizzlies’ lineup this season?

From many indications, it seems imminent.

The Grizzlies’ All-NBA defensive team forward could make his season debut as early as Tuesday’s marquee matchup in Latest Orleans against the Pelicans. Jackson is officially listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game, an upgrade from Sunday’s designation as doubtful.

If he doesn’t play against the Pelicans, there’s a superb probability Jackson would return for Friday’s home game against the Thunder. In either case, Jackson sounds as if he’s already checked in after completing nearly six months of recovery and rehab from foot surgery. 

“I’m just excited to be back,” Jackson said as he entered this opportunistic week. “It was nearly taking my time. I’m just ready. All the remaining will deal with itself.”

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies smiles during an open practice on October 9, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty ImagesMEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies smiles during an open practice on October 9, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies have been each encouraged and impressed by the methodical and incremental progress Jackson has made, specifically since training camp and thru the season’s first month. Jackson injured his right foot during a summer workout soon after the season resulted in May following a loss to eventual NBA champion Golden State within the conference semifinals.

Jackson was listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report entering Sunday’s game, but was placed on the inactive list after his workout ahead of the 102-92 loss to the Wizards. The Grizzlies were also missing All-NBA point guard Ja Morant and dynamic scoring guard Desmond Bane for Sunday’s game on account of ankle soreness and toe soreness, respectively.

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins indicated that neither Morant’s nor Bane’s ailments were serious, but that the team desired to be proactive in treating each issues. Morant and Bane form considered one of the NBA’s most prolific and productive backcourt tandems, averaging a combined 53.5 points, 11.8 assists and 10.9 rebounds per game this season. Morant is predicted to return to motion Tuesday, and he was not listed on Monday’s injury report. Bane, nonetheless, stays doubtful.

MEMPHIS, TN – MAY 1: Desmond Bane #22, Ja Morant #12 and Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 1, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For the primary time this season, the Grizzlies appear on the verge of getting Morant, Bane and Jackson all available to balance out a roster that had been counting on depth amid a 9-5 start.

The prospect of Jackson returning should help stabilize an inconsistent defense that recently drifted toward the underside third of the league in multiple categories before showing progress. When Jackson is ultimately cleared to go, the plan is to keep up a cautious approach along with his initial playing time and to administer his availability and recovery windows against the schedule.

“He’s had really good workouts all over, and he’s getting really close,” Jenkins said because the Grizzlies opened their two-game trip that wraps up Tuesday against the Pelicans. “His five-on-five (practice sessions) have been going rather well, and it’s just been a matter of working with the schedule, finding those opportunities, that level of labor, as he ramps up.”

Jenkins identified that there haven’t been many normal practice opportunities because the Grizzlies recently faced two different stretches of 4 games in a span of six nights. The team and training staff have needed to get creative to offer Jackson with game-type simulations and the exhaustive conditioning needed to get his body in position for his first NBA games since May.

MEMPHIS, TN – May 11: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies blocks the shot of Nemanja Bjelica #8 of the Golden State Warriors during Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 11, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“Everyone knows that when Jaren gets back, he’s going to assist take our team to a different level, especially on the defensive end,” Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks projected. “What we now have to do is hold it down until he’s ready. We all know when he’s ready, the sort of player he’s.”

At nearly 7-feet, with the flexibility to guard the rim and shoot three-pointers at an elite level, Jackson is a transformative presence on the court. A profession 12 months last season saw Jackson set franchise records and led the NBA in total blocks (177) and blocks per game (2.27).

He played in a career-high 78 games last season and have become considered one of just 4 players in NBA history to be named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team at age 22 or younger. Jackson’s production on each ends, combined with breakout seasons from Morant and Bane, were key within the Grizzlies ending the season ranked within the NBA’s top five in offensive and defensive rating.

Once Jackson returns, the Grizzlies hope it results in continuity. Through 14 games, Memphis has used six different starting lineups. Second-year forward Santi Aldama, who has shown promise filling in for Jackson, is the lone player to begin every game for the Grizzlies this season.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 24: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes to the basket against Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets during the game at FedExForum on October 24, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty ImagesMEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – OCTOBER 24: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes to the basket against Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets through the game at FedExForum on October 24, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Jenkins insisted that the approach with Jackson is about long-term stability and success.

“He’s just been phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “He’s doing every little thing step-by-step, and there have been no setbacks, no regressions. We wish to maintain it that way as he gets closer and closer.”

It’s a process Jackson has been through before. Leg and foot injuries have either cut short or delayed the beginning of three of his five NBA seasons since Jackson was drafted fourth overall in 2018. Every time, he’s returned stronger and with more added to his versatile skillset.

After working with the Grizzlies staff on all facets of his health, Jackson is confident his body and mindset are in tune to quickly regain rhythm along with his teammates.

“It’s been great,” Jackson said of his journey back to the brink of his season debut. “I’ve been responding exactly like I desired to in all facets, and every little thing has been going perfectly. I can’t really ask for anything.”

Well, aside from the official all-clear to make his next shot count on the scoreboard.

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