Don’t forget about Josh Jackson

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 28: Josh Jackson
HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 28: Josh Jackson /

Josh Jackson probably didn’t have a plan.

There were 4.4 seconds remaining on the clock when he received the ball from Tyler Ulis in the backcourt, tasking the Suns rookie with creating something out of nothing 70-feet away from the basket. With little time remaining, Jackson immediately turned on the jets and found himself at the halfcourt line after one dribble, past Dennis Smith Jr. after two dribbles and closing in on the 3-point line after three dribbles. The combination shaved 2.1 seconds off the clock, giving Jackson just enough time to get off a decent shot before the quarter’s end.

Most players would’ve settled for a pull-up in that situation, but Jackson chose to do something different. He picked up his dribble and took two steps as though he was going for a layup, only his last step took place in between the 3-point line and the free throw line. He then went airborne, drifting around a 6-foot-10 power forward at the free throw line and attempting a George Gervin-esque finger roll that had absolutely no business going in based on where he took off from.

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Only it did go in. The ball left Jackson’s hands with about a second remaining on the clock and went through the net as the buzzer sounded. It extended the Suns’ lead to double-figures heading into halftime — a lead the Suns would hold onto thanks to Jackson, who went on to tie his career-high at the time with 21 points.

That sequence might as well be a microcosm of Jackson’s rookie season. While he’s still incredibly raw on offense, he has the athleticism to pull off some jaw-dropping plays. Run him off the 3-point line, and he’ll score at the basket by gliding in the air and sneaking a layup around whoever is protecting the rim. Fail to put a body on him in the halfcourt, and he’ll either cut backdoor for a high-flying dunk or attack the offensive glass for a rim-rattling putback. Give him room to gather on a drive, and he’ll try to put 7-footers in the basket. Forget about him in transition, and he’ll make team’s pay by going vertical.

That’s not to say Jackson doesn’t have some skill, either. Something as simple as waiting for his defender to get over a screen and using his body to get them on his hip shows an understanding of how to carve out space for himself in a pick-and-roll.

Jackson has even showed some craftiness scoring out of the pick-and-roll, be it with a well-timed eurostep to get around Rudy Gobert or a smooth floater to avoid the long arms of Joel Embiid. He’s far more likely to rely on his athleticism to create scoring opportunities in the paint for himself at this stage of his career, but there is a little more nuance to Jackson’s game than acrobatic layups and explosive dunks.

It’s easy to see why Jackson was the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft when watching those plays. He’s built perfectly for the modern NBA as a 6-foot-8 forward — although his wingspan is on the smaller side for someone his height — who is perhaps the best athlete in his class. It gives him as much potential as the three players selected ahead of him, which explains why there was some talk about him being the No. 1 pick in the draft following his freshman season at Kansas.

Jackson has not looked like a No. 4 pick for most of his rookie season, though. He is currently averaging 11.4 points per game for the Suns on 40.7 percent shooting from the field and 26.2 percent shooting from the perimeter. Of the 164 players who are scoring at least 10 points per game this season, only 19 have shot worse from the field than Jackson. Of those 19 players who have shot worse from the field than Jackson, all but two benefit from making at least 1.5 3-pointers per game.

Jackson, meanwhile, has made 44 of his 168 3-point attempts — a miserable rate considering almost all of those opportunities have been open or wide open.

Even for a player as athletic as Jackson, it’s hard to be a consistent scorer in the NBA without a jump shot. When the ball isn’t in his hands, his defender can get way with helping off of him knowing he’s made only 29.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season. (Jackson ranks in the 14.0 percentile with 0.72 points per spot-up possession and the 32.2 percentile with 0.77 points per handoff possession). When the ball is in his hands, his defender can back way off of him knowing he’s made only 13.8 percent of his 3-point pull-ups and 31.8 percent of his 2-point pull-ups. (Jackson ranks in the 4.2 percentile with 0.51 points per isolation possession, albeit on a limited number of attempts).

It hasn’t prevented Jackson from taking a healthy amount of 3s this season, but he’d still rather put the ball on the floor than shoot a semi-contested 3-pointer when given the choice. It’s partly why he has struggled to finish at the basket, despite the occasional highlight. As much as his shorter arms and slight frame impact his finishing in the paint, he doesn’t do himself any favors by turning down open jump shots for these sorts of drives:

Taking those 3-pointers has a huge impact on Jackson’s game. Consider this: Jackson has made a 3-pointer in 30 games this season. His averages in those games jump to 14.5 points on 45.8 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Not only are those numbers Tatum-like, they’re significantly better than the 8.2 points on 34.2 percent shooting Jackson averages when he fails to make a 3-pointer in a game, which has happened 30 times this season.

Becoming an average 3-point shooter would raise Jackson’s ceiling considerably because he has the potential to be a versatile scorer. Other than cutting, Jackson doesn’t do anything in particular with high efficiency yet, but he’s shown flashes of being able to create for himself as a secondary ball-handler in pick-and-rolls and expose mismatches in isolation, whether it’s against a smaller defender in the post or a bigger defender on the perimeter. The more his jump shot improves, the easier it should be for him to score consistently in those areas.

Jackson has the potential to be a lockdown defender, too. He’s already drawing the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best scorer down the stretch of close games, whether it’s a point guard like Damian Lillard or a power forward like Anthony Davis. He has the foot speed to stick with the former off the dribble and the size to battle with the latter in the post, giving him the physical tools to match up with at least four positions. And if he or one of his teammates are able to get a stop, Jackson will look to score beat teams down the court in transition, where he has generated almost a quarter of his offense this season.

It seemed less likely that Jackson would develop into the two-way player he was projected to be based at how much he struggled at the start of the season, but he’s been a different player over the last six weeks. Whereas he averaged 9.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists on 37.8 percent shooting from the field prior to Suns head coach Jay Triano benching him on Jan. 2, he’s averaged 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 44.0 percent shooting from the field in the 22 games since. The only rookies who have outscored Jackson during that stretch are Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr.

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That won’t be enough to put him in the Rookie of the Year conversation, but it’s good to see Jackson’s name being mentioned in the same sentence as them again because it puts him back to where he belongs — on track to be one of the best players to emerge from the 2017 NBA Draft.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from