Something special is happening in Memphis, and while Ja Morant is taking all the headlines with his nightly highlight reel of gravity defying offensive plays, it’s at the defensive end that the Grizzlies are really excelling, and that throws up an intriguing betting opportunity for us.
The market for the Defensive Player of the Year award looked dead early in the season, with Milwaukee’s veteran center Brook Lopez touching odds-on in places as the Bucks started the season with a bang.
After that 9-0 start though, Milwaukee have struggled along at around .500 since, and Splash Mountain’s form has suffered along with his team’s in general.
With the short-priced favourite easing, an opportunity presented itself to value hunters, and Memphis big man Jaren Jackson Junior has emerged as a real challenger, and current short odds favourite.
JJJ started the season on the injured list, still recovering from a stress fracture in his foot suffered back in June, but the improvement in the Grizzlies’ defensive numbers since his return have been marked.
Jackson missed the first 14 games before making his season debut November 15th, racking up 5 blocks in just 25 minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans.
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After 11 games back, Jackson had already moved into the top 10 in blocks with his 40th rejection of the season, and his impact was obvious, with teams shooting 57% against Memphis when he was off the floor and 46% with him on it, the biggest differential in the league.
That trajectory has continued - Jackson is already up to 5th in total blocks - but to be included in the NBA’s averages in any of the statistical categories, players must play 70% of their teams’ games, which comes out at 58 in an 82 game season.
Memphis is now tied for the best defensive rating in the NBA at 109.6 (without Jackson, Memphis has a 112.8 defensive rating, 108.5 with). In the last 15 games the Grizz lead the Defensive Ratings by some way at 105.4, nearly 5 full points clear of the next best New York Knicks.
While games played is one of the considerations looked at when deciding these NBA awards, the fact Jackson hasn’t yet played enough has seen him slip under the radar - he is averaging 3.2 blocks per game, which would put him top of the pile - Nic Claxton and Lopes lead the way on 2.6bpg. In fact, Jackson is currently on track to beat the record for highest BLK% in NBA history, set to top the legendary Manute Bol’s 1989 mark of 10.8.
Jackson, who has a 7-foot-5 wingspan, led the NBA in total blocks last season and was first team all defense, but he’s taken a leap this term. Physically he looks bigger and more imposing, like an end boss waiting under the basket for an opponent to stray into the Memphis paint.
He may be blocking 3 shots a game but there’s another 20 or 30 possessions where opponents think about driving to the hoop, see the ‘Block Panther’ (as he’s started calling himself) waiting for them and they decide to abort mission. Those things don’t show up on the stat sheet, but they don’t go unnoticed by the assembled members of the media, and they’re the ones voting here.
Unlike some past winners of this award, JJJ can come out from under the basket and switch onto smaller, quicker players on the perimeter too, making scoring against the Grizzlies an even tougher proposition.
Defensive Player of the Year is an award voted for by 124 sportswriters and broadcasters, and in general they vote for a shot blocking center rather than a smaller guard or wing.
Last year Boston point guard Marcus Smart won this award, but that was very much the exception, with shot blocking, rebounding centers generally victorious.
Since the first Defensive Player of the Year was awarded in 1983, all but eight of the winners have been big men, with Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace both winning it 4 times and Rudy Gobert and Dwight Howard 3 each.
The decision by NBA media to reward Smart for the Celtics’ miserly defensive performances in the second half of last season was met with much derision, making it all the more likely the award will go to a big this time around.
The NBA recently renamed the Defensive Player of the Year trophy in honour of legendary Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, and the shot blocking, imposing defensive presence that is Jaren Jackson Junior would be a more than appropriate first winner.
Since first publishing this feature, JJJ has moved from 5.50 to clear odds on favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year, at odds of 1.80, with Lopez (5.50), Claxton (8.50) and Giannis & Bam (15.00) following.
By Max Bennett | Updated: 01/12/23
Follow Max Bennett on Twitter at @MaxBTheJumpHub