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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.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.

 

Clippers’ Milos Teodosic opts into $6.3 million for next season

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It was a lot of fun to watch Milos Teodosic play last season…

When he was healthy. He only played in 45 games for the Clippers last season.

Teodosic will be back in the NBA next season, as he has told the Clippers he will opt into a $6.3 million next season, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Clippers can buy him out by July 15 for $2.1 million, and that likely will happen. The Clippers are deep at the point guard spot (Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jawun Evans) and with a lottery rookie in the fold they will want to get him run.

Expect the Clippers to try to trade him in the next three weeks. He would have value to a team looking for a backup point guard — when he did play he averaged 9.5 points per game, shot 37.9 percent from three. The fans will love his passing and play. The coach will like him too… when healthy.

Report: Suns to renounce rights to Alex Len, Elfrid Payton

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The Suns want to free up some cap space heading into July. They are not going big game hunting, but with $10 million to $15 million they could bring in some solid veterans to provide leadership to their young core — and win a few games along the way.

How they get there starts with not bringing back Alex Len or Elfrid Payton, reports Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic.

Expect them to renounce their rights to center Alex Len and point guard Elfrid Payton, making them both free agents. Ayton’s addition has made Len expendable, and while Phoenix still needs point-guard help, Payton’s inconsistent play last season and, more importantly, his $10 million cap hold figure, likely means he’s played his last game in a Suns uniform.

This was expected. In Len’s case, he was playing on a qualifying offer and didn’t anticipate being back with the team (especially after they drafted Deandre Ayton).

The Suns acquired Payton at the trade deadline for a second-round pick (which was just by Orlando to land Jarred Vanderbilt) and it was a good flier. The Suns need a point guard to go next to Devin Booker, Payton is a former lottery pick that had shown flashes in the past, so Phoenix rolled the dice on him. It didn’t work out, and the Suns can just move on.

Both Len and Payton probably find new homes in the NBA next season. Len is 7’1″ and can use that size to protect the paint, plus he can score around the rim. Teams can use that off the bench. Payton has shown enough in flashes, and he can get buckets, that some team will grab him, just probably as a reserve.