Josh Jackson, at this point, seems to be the consensus best prospect not named Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.
He’s 6-foot-8. He’s super-athletic. He’s competitive as hell. He’s skilled enough to play the point in a pinch and tough enough that he played the four at Kansas. On paper, he’s Andrew Wiggins physically with all the intangibles that we wish Wiggins had.
Then there’s the other side of it.
Jackson’s jump shot, which went in at a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc last season, has enough of a hitch in it that there is legitimate concern about just how good of a shooter he’ll end up being without a complete overhaul of his stroke. There’s also the mental side of the game: Jackson’s an instinctual playmaker that has a bad habit of being a space cadet defensively.
I’m not here to tell you those red flags don’t exist. They do. He has room to grow there.
But I am here to tell you that Josh Jackson is closer to being the best prospect in this draft than the third-best, and by the time I’m done here, you’ll be agreeing with me.
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.8% 3PT
STRENGTHS: The reason that Jackson is so coveted as a prospect are the things that he does that you cannot teach.
It starts with his competitiveness. Jackson is a fiery, he’s intense and it manifests itself in the way that he plays, almost to a fault; Jackson picked up four fouls in 11 of 35 games as a freshman and picked up a handful of technical fouls after interactions with officials. There’s also a toughness to him that outweighs his 207 pound frame. He’s not afraid to get into tangles for loose balls, he’s not going to get backed down easily and he’s more than willing to put his body on the line to take a charge. Simply put: I’d rather try to keep the reins on a player that may care just a little too much than have to find a way to fire up an apathetic talent.
Then there are the physical tools. Athletically, he’s a bouncy, quick-twitch player that can move laterally with terrific body control and the ability to changes speeds on the move. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards and explosive enough to block shots, catch lobs and throw down tip-dunks, and his 6-foot-8 size allows him to be a versatile, multi-positional defender. I hesitate on saying he has a elite physical tools due to his wingspan and frame, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Lastly, there are his instincts. He’s a read-and-react player, a guy that can make plays defensively by jumping passing lanes, getting weak-side blocks and taking charges. He has a knack for getting easy buckets cutting to the rim and is aggressive on the glass on both ends of the floor.
Those are things that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or you don’t, and Jackson has it.
He also has some skills. We’ll get into the issues with his jump shot in a minute, but Jackson did make 37.8 percent of his threes as a freshman, including a 25-for-52 stretch to close the season. He utilizes ball-fakes and has a good enough first step to attack close outs, and while he isn’t the best or most creative finisher at the rim, he is capable of using both hands and has shown that he can make a floater.
What’s more promising, however, is that Jackson has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler and creator. He has above-average vision and is an unselfish player and willing passer, averaging 3.0 assists as a freshman. He can operate in pick-and-rolls and is capable of bringing the ball up against pressure.
He’s still raw offensively — he makes some bad decisions, commits some turnovers — and, at times, looks like he hasn’t been coached all that much defensively, but the skills he does have combined with the things he does that cannot be taught are a fantastic foundation for an NBA organization to work with.
In a sport that is becoming increasingly positionless, Jackson provides starpower potential with versatility on both ends of the floor.
WEAKNESSES: The biggest issue with Jackson as a prospect is his jump shot. Yes, he shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the result of Jackson getting hot in a small sample of catch-and-shoot jumpers.
According to Synergy, Jackson shot just 57 percent from the free throw line, 35.9 percent on all jump shots, 32.3 percent on jumpers off the dribble and just 20.8 percent on two-point jumpers. The main concern is that Jackson has a hitch in his release that creates a lot of moving parts in his stroke, resulting in different release points. You can see it in the video below, there is a slingshot action in his release:
The question marks surrounding Jackson’s jumper sink his stock because, despite his height, he doesn’t project as a guy that can play the small-ball four role in the NBA the way that he did at Kansas. Jackson’s 6-foot-10 wingspan is relatively short — for comparison’s sake, Draymond Green has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and Kawhi Leonard has a 7-foot-3 wingspan — and his slender frame makes it hard to project just how much more muscle mass his body can hold.
Put another way, Jackson can guard twos and threes — and potentially ones — at the next level, but he’s not guarding fours. He’s going to be playing a position where he either needs to be an knockdown shooter or capable of creating in isolation in the half court, and Jackson scored just 0.609 points per possession in isolation as a freshman, the 23rd percentile, despite being guarded predominantly by college four-men on a team with three three-point snipers around him.
It begs the question: Is he ever going to be great at anything on the offensive end of the floor?
And that’s before you factor in that he turned 20 years old in February; he’s older than one-and-done freshmen drafted in 2016.
The other issue you’ll hear mentioned with Jackson is that he has bad habits defensively and he gets beaten on the dribble more easily than you would expect from someone with his athleticism. The bad habits — specifically, the tendency to lose focus on who he is guarding — seems to me to be a result of Jackson trying a little too hard to be a playmaker off the ball, and getting beaten off the dribble has a lot to do with his overactive, choppy feet.
Neither are all that concerning to me, particularly when you factor in his intangibles on that end of the floor. Those issues can be coached away, and there’s not better place for that to happen than in the NBA.
NBA COMPARISON: The easy — and lazy — comparison to make is Andrew Wiggins, who is another 6-foot-8, freakishly-athletic small forward to come out of Kansas, and it’s not the worst comparison I’ve ever seen. The two have similar physical tools and question marks about their jump shots. The problem with that comparison, however, is that the things that make Jackson so intriguing are precisely the skills that Wiggins struggles with.
Jackson is a tough, versatile defender and a fiery competitor that is well-rounded offensively: unselfish with promising court vision and a knack for making instinctual, read-and-react plays. His ceiling is as a player that can average more than 20 points, act as a secondary ball-handler and play maker while potentially being a shutdown defender for twos and threes. Andre Igoudala, before he landed with Golden State and turned into a role player in the twilight of his career, had a seven-year stretch where he averaged 12 points, five boards, five assists and 1.5 steals, scoring more than 17 points per game in four of those seasons.
OUTLOOK: The way I see it, Josh Jackson is the the second-best prospect in this draft. I’d draft him over Lonzo Ball, and I think the gap between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson is smaller than the gap between Josh Jackson and Ball, who would be third on my draft board.
Jackson has some issues that need fixing — his jump shot, his tendency to be a space cadet defensively — and there are some valid concerns about his age and the fact that his slender frame may not be able to hold all that much more weight, but those issues are coachable. What isn’t coachable, however, is his competitiveness, his intensity, his unselfishness, his instincts and his ability to read the game and be a playmaker, both offensively and defensively.
He’s a gifted athlete that is going to fight — quite possibly in the literal sense — for the team that he’s on. If he puts in the time to develop his jumper, his body and his focus on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 25 points, five boards and five assists as a shutdown wing defender.