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2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jaren Jackson Jr. the future of the center position?

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Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t going to be the first pick in the draft, and I’m not sure just how many mock drafts are going to have him slotted somewhere in the top two or three picks.

The hype, attention and production that comes with the likes of DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic is hard to ignore, particularly in comparison with Jackson, who averaged just 10.9 points in one year at Michigan State and bowed out of the NCAA tournament after playing just 15 minutes in a second round loss to Syracuse.

Put another way, Jackson never really has moved the needle, which makes sense for a guy that was the fifth-option for his team in college.

But it doesn’t take all that much effort to find NBA decision-makers that think Jackson might end up being the most impactful NBA player to come out of this draft class.

The reason why is fairly straight-forward: He will fit seamlessly into the modern NBA given the combination of skills that he has while the other four players projected to go in the top five this year have more question marks. Ayton’s rim-protection, three-point shooting and questionable work ethic are red flags. Bagley cannot guard the position (five) that he is going to have to play offensively. Doncic’s relative lack of athleticism makes it unclear who he can guard at the next level. Mo Bamba’s offensive repertoire and toughness will be questioned.

Jackson?

He’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He shot 39.6 percent from three after shooting 43.8 percent from three on the EYBL circuit in 2016. He averaged 3.0 blocks despite playing just under 22 minutes a night as a freshman. He is as switchable as any big man in this class defensively because of his ability to move his feet. He won’t turn 19 years old until September 15th, making him 16 months younger than Bamba, 15 months younger than Michael Porter Jr., 14 months younger than Ayton and six months younger than Bagley, who reclassified to enroll at Duke a year early.

He’s everything that NBA teams are looking for as a defensive anchor in the era of small-ball fives switching pick-and-rolls.

Put another way, how much do you think Tristan Thompson (or Clint Capela) would be worth to the Cavs (or Rockets) if he could shoot 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the free throw line? What would Kevin Love‘s value be on the open market if he was a rim-protector and a better defender in space?

Jackson has a long was to go to get to that level, but when you imagine his ceiling, that’s the picture you get.

HEIGHT: 6-foot-11.25
WEIGHT: 236
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5.25
2017-18 STATS: 10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.0 bpg, 1.1 apg, 51.3/39.6/79.7, 38 3PM
DRAFT RANGE: Top four

STRENGTHS

When we talk about 3-and-D, typically what we’re referring to are wings, players like a Trevor Ariza or a Danny Green, but 3-and-D big men do exist. Jackson, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, projects as the quintessential 3-and-D big, a perfect fit as a small-ball five in the modern NBA.

Let’s start with his ability to shoot the ball. Jackson knocked down 39.6 percent of his attempts from three in his one season at Michigan State, getting up nearly three threes per game. While that isn’t a massive sample size, Jackson shot 44 percent (28-for-64) from beyond the arc on Nike’s EYBL circuit prior to his senior season in high school and knocked down nearly 80 percent of his free throws this past season. His shooting stroke is awkward — he shoots a push shot with a low-release point that has a weird, sideways spin on it — but he has shot a high-percentage at every level he’s played at in his career. It’s not really a stretch to think that will continue onto the next level.

He’s also a capable driver — mostly to his left — when it comes to attacking closeouts, showing flashes of handle and the ability to beat bigger, and smaller, defenders off the bounce.

The defensive end of the floor is where the real intrigue lies with Jackson.

Offensively, he has a chance to be effective, a floor-spacer that can create some mismatches and beat a close-out, but I’d be pretty surprised if he ever ended up averaging more than 15-17 points in the NBA.

Where Jackson can really make his mark is on the defensive end of the floor, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that winning a Defensive Player of the Year award in the NBA is within his range of outcomes.

Let’s start with the shot-blocking. On the season, Jackson averaged 3.0 blocks per night despite playing just under 22 minutes; he averaged 5.8 blocks per-40 minutes. Jackson’s block-rate is even more impressive, coming in fourth-nationally at 14.3. There hasn’t been a player drafted in the first round to post a better block rate in the year they were drafted since at least 2004; both Hasheem Thabeet and Larry Sanders, who were drafted after their junior seasons, bettered that block rate in limited roles as freshmen while Hassan Whiteside, who was a second-round pick, had the best block-rate of the bunch.

In fact, Jackson’s block-rate is better than just about every dominant big man that has been picked at the top of the lottery in recent years, including Anthony Davis, and that was despite the fact that he spent the majority of his minutes this season playing the four:

There’s more.

Since 2009-10, there have been just eight players — including Jackson — that have posted a block rate higher than 14 and a true-shooting percentage above 64. Jackson made 38 threes this past season. The other seven players on that list attempted one three combined.

I say all that to say this: The ability to block shots at the rate that Jackson blocks shots is a unique skill, one that is not often combined with a player that has the ability to shoot from distance that Jackson has.

Jackson, however, is more than just a shot-blocker on the defensive end. He can move his feet. He can defend guards on the perimeter when he’s forced to switch. He spent this past season covering college basketball’s small-ball fours. He got experience defending on an island and moving his feet against quicker ball-handlers.

Switchable rim-protectors that space the floor offensively don’t come around that often, and he still doesn’t turn 19 for another two months.

WEAKNESSES

Much of what ails Jackson has to do with his age.

He checked in at 236 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine, but he could still stand to add some size and muscle to his frame. His lower body strength needs work as well, as he has something of a high center of gravity. He’ll get bullied early on in his career. Jackson could also stand to improve his explosiveness and lateral quickness. At this point, he’s mobile and he’s long but he’s not an above-average athlete, particularly from an NBA perspective. That should improve as he gets into an NBA weight training program and continues to grow into his body. Remember, he was just 6-foot-2 as a freshman in high school.

Jackson needs to get most confidence in his ability to drive right and his awkward shooting stroke means he’ll probably never be a great pull-up jump-shooter, but that’s not likely to be something that he’ll be asked to do all that often.

Maturity and decision-making may be the biggest issue that he’ll face.

Let’s start with the fouls. He committed a LOT of them. Part of the reason that he only averaged 22 minutes was that he also averaged 3.2 fouls per game, or roughly 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes. Some of that is a result of Jackson still learning how to play and where to be positionally — freshman bigs are always going to be foul prone, especially when they’re being asked to defend on the perimeter more. Part of that is he is a little slow to react when defending on the perimeter. Sometimes that’s because he reads the play late, something that should change as he spends more time playing. Sometimes it’s because he’s too upright defensively, which will be helped as he develops his lower-body. Sometimes it’s because he’s over-aggressive, whether that manifests itself as a reach-in foul or getting whistled for over-the-back on a rebound he never really had a chance to get.

In theory, those are things that can be coached out. What’s a little more concerning is that Jackson is somewhat naïve and tends to have a long memory during games. He can get hung up on a referee blowing a call or him missing a shot.

But again, it’s hard to know whether that’s who he is or simply a result of an 18-year old being 18.

NBA COMPARISON

I’m not sure there really is a perfect comparison for Jackson because I’m not sure how many players have the combination of skills that he has. I think his floor is somewhere between a Serge Ibaka and a Robert Covington, depending on just how good of a shooter he develops into and where his development defensively takes him, which is part of the reason that he is steadily climbing draftboards. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t become a useful rotation player on a team that can play the way you need to play to compete with Golden State.

Jackson’s ceiling will be determined by what he becomes on the offensive end of the floor. Let’s say that his three-point shooting doesn’t take a dip when moving back to the NBA line and that he continues to add to his face-up game, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could turn into Kristaps Porzingis-lite, but even that is far from perfect and probably an unfair expectation to put on an 18-year old.

The best way to think of Jackson’s ceiling: Clint Capela, except he adds Kevin Love’s perimeter repertoire in a role similar to the one Draymond Green plays — more on that in a second. That is an extremely useful and valuable player to have.

OUTLOOK

I have a very hard time seeing Jackson end up as a bust.

It will take some time for him to get there, but his tools defensively combined with his ability to make shots means that there will be a role for him in the NBA for a long time to come.

At the same time, I think Jackson’s upside offensively is limited to a point. Put another way, I don’t see him being the go-to guy on a team that is making runs in the playoff.

Which leads me to Draymond.

Green and Jackson are very, very different players. One is 6-foot-6 and the other is 6-foot-11. One is a terrific playmaker that ran some point in college and the other finished his college career with 39 assists and 62 turnovers. One is certifiably insane and the other is not.

But what Green does for Golden State is a pretty good template for what I think Jackson will be able to provide for an NBA franchise down the road, operating at the piece that brings everything together defensively while doing enough on the offensive end of the floor to keep defenders honest and help create space for his teammates.

Jackson will do it in a different way than Draymond does, but the effect he’ll have on the way a team can play will be similar.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.

PBT Podcast: How do Victor Oladipo, Pacers take next step forward?

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Last season Victor Oladipo burst on the scene, making the leap from solid rotation player to All-NBA level star who could score and defend — and he dragged the Pacers up to being a solid playoff team with him.

The Pacers were the surprise of the NBA, which leads to the question: Can they do it again? More than that, how can they take a step forward? Kurt Helin of NBC Sports talks with J. Michael of the Indy Star about the Pacers and their key role players — Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young and more — and what has to happen to move this team into the top three or four of the East.

The pair also discusses the East a little, including whether Toronto is for real, and how big a threat will Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks be.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Report: Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor unaligned on Jimmy Butler trade

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly initially expressed no interest in granting Jimmy Butler‘s trade request. Then, owner Glen Taylor reportedly ordered Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden to deal the star. Yet, Thibodeau was still reportedly trying to convince Butler to stay in Minnesota as of yesterday.

Does that mean Thibodeau was defying his boss? Not necessarily. Thibodeau could be trying to persuade Butler on one front while Thibodeau and Layden also explore trades on another front. There’s room for simultaneous strategies.

But it doesn’t sound as if the Timberwolves are all on the same page.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, who is the point man for trade conversations, continue to leave rival executives and owners unclear about both the specific players and broader kinds of assets that the Wolves value in a deal, sources said. Even more doubt exists about whether there’s even yet alignment between Taylor and Thibodeau on a structure and a timetable for a deal, league sources told ESPN.

From starting the week insisting to other teams that Minnesota wouldn’t trade Butler to slow-playing return phone calls and failing to share guidelines for the kind of deal that Minnesota wants to execute, Layden has graduated to the next phase of negotiations with teams: Asking for stars, starters, draft picks and salary-cap relief for the chance to acquire Butler, league sources said.

there’s a belief among interested teams that Thibodeau is reluctant to bring strong offers to his owner for examination because he’s still holding out hope to get Butler on the floor for Minnesota this season.

As the trade process grinds along, some interested teams are working to bypass Layden and go directly to Wolves ownership with trade offers. Teams dealing with Minnesota describe an unusual level of confusion. Some have heard separately from Taylor and the Layden/Thibodeau management team, with little apparent coordination between the two levels of Minnesota’s organization.

This all sounds believable. Thibodeau can be stubborn. He feuded with Bulls management until he got fired, and there’s a rumor he’d rather leave the Timberwolves than trade Butler for lesser young players and picks. There’d be a selfish logic to that approach, as missing the playoffs next season – more likely without Butler – could get Thibodeau fired, anyway.

But a dose of skepticism about this report: If you were a team trying to trade for Butler, would you rather deal with Thibodeau – a basketball expert who is adamant about getting a good return – or Taylor, a businessman who built his fortune outside basketball then bought an NBA team? The answer is probably Taylor, and a way to do that is sow discord in Minnesota with leaks like this. This report could cause Taylor to take over Butler-trade negotiations completely.