Dissecting the JJJ-Ayton Debate


Every so often, people on social media compare Jaren Jackson Jr. to Deandre Ayton. Both players were top-five picks in the same draft, and have never had any public rift. However, just by looking at those fans, one would think the two players were bitter rivals. Commentators on both sides claim the other team wants their player, or say the team regrets their selection when the reality is both teams seem at peace with their decisions.

Sure, the Suns passed up on Luka Doncic and Trae Young to take Ayton, but no one from the team has ever expressed any problems with it. Ayton has the potential to form an elite inside-out duo with Devin Booker, and the Suns seem content to see the process through. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies took Jackson fourth overall, with hopes of him becoming the next great franchise big man. They passed on Young as well but didn’t need him.

So what makes these two players such a hot topic? How do they stack up against one another? Who is better?

There’s no specific answer to why these two get put against each other so often. It often seems that one fanbase will mention the other’s player, and chaos ensues. I first saw this happen about a month ago on Reddit. The debate resumed this week on Twitter with multiple posts like this. A quick search shows results dating back nearly to the 2018 draft. While none of those comments answer why these two have so many comparisons, there is a way to see how they measure up and try to determine who’s better.

Deandre Ayton Profile

Hometown: Nassau, Bahamas

College: Arizona

Draft: 1st overall, 2018 by Phoenix

Height: 7’0″

Weight: 250 lbs.

Wingspan: 7’5.5″

2019-20 Averages: 33.2 min, 19 pts, 12 rebs, 1.9 ast, 0.7 stl, 1.7 blk, 55/0/77 shooting splits

Jaren Jackson Jr. Profile

Hometown: Plainfield, New Jersey

College: Michigan State

Draft: 4th overall, 2018 by Memphis

Height: 6’11

Weight: 242 lbs.

Wingspan: 7’5.25

2019-20 Averages: 28.0 min, 16.9 pts, 4.7 rebs, 1.4 ast, 0.7 stl, 1.6 blk, 47/40/74 shooting splits

Statistical Analysis

Coming into the draft, NBA analysts viewed Ayton and Jackson as potential franchise-player bigs with contrasting play styles. Ayton was seen as an old-school, back-to-the-basket big and received comparisons to David Robinson. Analysts heralded Jackson as the next “unicorn” – a prototypical modern-day big capable of playing inside or out. Have they lived up to their scouting reports? So far, both have played as predicted.

Ayton’s Growth

Ayton has established himself as an excellent starting-caliber center and an essential piece of Phoenix’s offense. After being fifth last season, he rose to second on the team in usage rating in this campaign. He responded well, increasing his numbers across the board while maintaining acceptable efficiency. He looks like the elite inside threat Phoenix needed to pair with Booker and Kelly Oubre.

Ayton’s second season is difficult to compare to his first due to the significant difference in games played. He was in the 75th percentile of post-up players last season but fell to the 25th percentile this season. One can attribute the drop to multiple factors, such as his suspension, a new point guard, and a coaching change.

Despite those changes, Ayton still put up good numbers this season. He was one of just two players to average at least 19 points and 12 rebounds per game. Those numbers were fifth and first among sophomores, respectively. Of high-usage sophomores (8+ FGA/game), Ayton posted the best FG% at 54.8%. He was also second in blocks per game and third in double-doubles, despite only playing 30 games.

Ayton’s advanced stats also looked good this season. Among sophomores, he was fourth in’s Player Impact Estimate. He led second-year players in rebound rate, and his net and offensive rating numbers were both top 20. He was top-25 in true shooting and effective field goal percentage.

Jackson’s Growth

Meanwhile, in Memphis, Jackson showed a lot of growth as well. His usage jump wasn’t as significant as Ayton’s, but he responded just as well. Despite his overall field goal percentage dropping, his true shooting and effective field goal numbers improved. Jackson’s raw stat improvements weren’t very noticeable, but a deeper dive shows that he had a very successful sophomore campaign. He established himself as Ja Morant’s co-star.

Like Ayton, JJJ’s second season is a lot different from his first. In year one, Jackson benefited from having Mike Conley and Marc Gasol still on the team, allowing him to adjust to the game slowly. This year, he was more of a focal point for the team. He also got a new coach this year, and a drastically different roster. These changes, along with the addition of Ja Morant, produced positive and negative effects on Jackson’s game and numbers.

Overall, Jackson took a step forward. Most notably, he improved his three-point shooting percentage while also taking over twice as many attempts. Jackson also spent more time at the center position, which is big for the team’s trajectory. He established himself as one of the best shooters in his class, putting up the third-best three-point percentage of high-attempt shooters (5+ 3PA/game). Jackson flashed his defensive potential all season, tying Ayton for second in blocks among sophomores.

As previously mentioned, Jackson’s changes show up mostly in the advanced stats. His shot profile shifted dramatically. Last season, 76% of his shots were two-pointers. That number dropped to only 51.5% this season. Jackson displayed a slightly improved ability to create his own shot and hit shots from the corner. He also improved his turnover percentage, despite an increase in usage. Jackson’s OBPM went from -1.2 last season to 0.2 this season, which is a big swing for such a young player.

Ultimately, both players showed promising signs for the future. They both seem to be trending in the right direction. The comparison between the two shows how similar they are, despite playing different styles. Deciding which is better, at the rate they’re going, will remain a subjective debate for a while.

Our Thoughts on the Comparison

From Aravind Srinivasan, Suns Writer for The Lead:

The 2018 draft was deep and impressive. The headliner was Luka Doncic, and his trade involving Trae Young is a great story. It will stay that way as long as Luka is playing like an all-time great, but there were also three big men in the top five picks. Deandre Ayton went first to Phoenix, Sacramento picked Marvin Bagley III, and Memphis selected Jaren Jackson Jr. fourth. These are three talented big men that the bright lights around Young and Doncic should not overshadow.

In the spirit of the Michael Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance,” I will draw a parallel to the 1984 draft. Michael Jordan went third behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. While fans kill and mock Portland for picking Bowie over MJ, Houston never catches a lot of flak for picking Hakeem at one. Hakeem may not be the greatest ever, but he is a Hall of Famer who also won two championships. As a talented seven-footer, he was the right pick at the top of the draft, and Houston got what they wanted out of him. MJ became the greatest eventually, but Houston still made the right choice.

We can’t evaluate all our decisions based on the outcomes. Sometimes, the right choices can lead to the wrong result. Granted, without the two rings, the world may be a little more critical of Houston. I am hoping the 2018 Phoenix Suns draft turns out similar to Houston’s 1984 draft. I will be ecstatic if Ayton ends up in the Hall of Fame with two rings. In that case, the Suns would have still drafted the right guy regardless of what Luka Doncic does in his career. It’s too early to talk about Hall of Fame, but Ayton has shown a lot of promise so far, which is why the Suns are not catching as much criticism as Sacramento for not picking Doncic.

While it’s too early to use the word bust for anybody in that draft — especially Bagley — Ayton is far from a failure. He looks great! Given Doncic’s brilliance and Bagley’s injuries, the one intriguing comparison at the top of that draft is between Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr. They have both had two decent seasons, but Ayton has been filling the box score a little bit better. JJJ entered the draft with some defensive hype while Ayton came in with many question marks at that end of the floor. Analysts considered Ayton’s athleticism and skills on the offensive end of the floor superior, just like JJJ’s three-point shooting. Two years into their careers, they have stayed true to these projections in a lot of ways.

They are pretty close in terms of their upside, and except for three-point shooting, I would say Ayton is either on-par or better than JJJ. Memphis as a team is doing well, and some of that shine falls on JJJ. Ayton has done better than him in year two in many key per-game metrics– points, rebounds, assists, FG% and PER (player efficiency rating). They are both pretty close in steals and blocks per game, which is excellent news for Suns fans because JJJ was the better defensive prospect. Ayton is closing the gap, and his defensive growth in year two was very encouraging.

The one aspect where JJJ is way ahead is three-point shooting. Jackson’s outside shot helps his effective FG%– something Ayton can’t do as well because he doesn’t take threes.

JJJ’s game is smooth, and his 3-and-D potential in the modern NBA is what makes him very appealing. Some people don’t like the old-school center in Ayton. Ayton is already a 19 pts-12 rebs guy, however, which is tremendous. JJJ was almost a 17-5 guy himself this year, and that’s nothing to dismiss, but DA was almost a 22-13 guy in February before the league stopped play. There is still a lot of space for that center in today’s game. Expect the position to have a resurgence in upcoming years. Ayton has already shown he has the work ethic to improve, so adding a three-point jumper to his arsenal in the future isn’t out of the equation.

Given all of this, I give a slight edge to Ayton over JJJ as we move forward. If we were to redo the 2018 draft today, of course, Luka goes first. There is an argument to be made for Ayton and JJJ for that second spot, not to mention Trae Young. I will still make the selection for Ayton over the others. I will go with the incredible athlete in a genuine center’s body who can score comfortably on offense while consistently improving on defense. There may be no wrong answers here, but I think Ayton is the right choice.

From Richmond Bailey Caldwell, Grizzlies Writer for The Lead:

I feel that these two players have the closest gap between any other combination from the 2018 draft. Their differences in play, team performance, and team composition are probably why they get compared so often. While I think it’s very close, I’m giving the edge to Jaren Jackson Jr. Being a Grizzlies fan and writer, part of my reasoning is simply due to bias, but I am going to do my best to eliminate that here.

I want to start by saying that I have a ton of respect for Deandre Ayton. I’m a fan of his old-school playstyle. I think the gap between him and JJJ will remain close for the entirety of their careers. Ayton has proven to be a top-tier post-up player and a better defender than expected. His rebounding numbers are high, and he’s very efficient. Just looking at stats alone, he seems like the better player.

However, a deeper dive shows the areas where Jaren excels. The most effortless strength to see is his shooting range. Ayton has shot only seven threes in his NBA career; Jackson averaged 6.3 attempts per game last season. On top of that, JJJ shot 39.7% from downtown. Considering the way the game is played today, that deep-range prowess has significant value. His added range and effectiveness cause Jackson’s advanced efficiency stats (EFG and TS%) to be better than Ayton’s.

Fans often like to claim that Jackson’s defense is overhyped. He hasn’t reached his defensive ceiling but has limitless potential on that end of the court. Right now, he still has several bad habits that he has to resolve, but he has a fabulous knack for protecting the rim and guarding guys on the perimeter. Jackson has a 7’4″ wingspan and has the quickness to harass quicker players. He still falls for pump fakes too often, which gets him in foul trouble, but those are issues that he can fix as he gets older.

Still, Jackson’s advanced defensive numbers have been better than Ayton’s both seasons. His DBPM has been better than Ayton’s both seasons, despite only being 0.5 and 0, respectively. Ayton hasn’t yet posted a positive rating. In terms of DWS, JJJ remains in front, contrary to popular belief. He also has posted a block percentage of over five in both seasons, whereas Ayton posted a career-best 4.5% this season.

I believe Jaren’s defense is viewed as overhyped, while some see Ayton’s as ahead of schedule partially due to the differences in the competition they face. According to Basketball-Reference, Jackson spent 54% of his time at center last season. Ayton spent 99% of his time there. Jackson often only faces opponents’ second-unit center, whereas Ayton gets the starters. I would argue that Jackson’s average opponent is better than Ayton’s. Ayton gets starting-caliber centers, but Jackson faces starting power forwards, which is a much more versatile position, in my opinion.

One action I don’t expect JJJ ever to achieve is to match Ayton’s rebounding numbers. Jaren doesn’t come off as a natural rebounder to me. He’s got the size, strength, and athleticism for it, but I don’t see him as a double-digit rebounder. I believe he can improve, though, and could average around eight per game. Right now, Jackson doesn’t have Ayton’s ability to play full-time center either. Most Grizzlies fans believe JJJ will fill that role in the future, and I agree. His frame has the potential to fill out, allowing him to handle the physical toll of playing down low.

Ultimately, I think both teams selected excellent players with limitless potential. While I don’t like it, fans will likely compare the two for the entirety of their careers. I believe JJJ will have a more significant impact in the league due to fit in the modern game. Ayton will be useful and be in All-Star talks for years to come, but I don’t know if he can be a championship-caliber centerpiece. I believe JJJ could one day be DPOY and an essential piece to a championship team.

Follow us on Twitter @Grizz_Lead for the latest Grizzlies news and insight.


About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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