“With the #2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select…Josh Jackson, University of Kansas.”
There is a real possibility that exact sentence is uttered by Adam Silver at next Thursday’s NBA Draft. Jackson, the do-it-all F out of Kansas, reportedly has his supporters in the organization, with Chad Ford noting that the organization might actually be “split” between drafting the presumptive #2 Lonzo Ball or selecting Jackson:
I also think it reflects a genuine split within the organization about whom the best long-term candidate is. Ball was a clear favorite of the prior administration run by Mitch Kupchak and still has his fans within the organization. But the Lakers also took note on how Fox outplayed Ball in their head-to-head matchup in March. And Jackson has always been another favorite in the organization.
While the feeling is that Ball is a good fit with the Lakers offensively, Fox and Jackson are gritty defenders and vocal leaders on the court, something the Lakers feel the team is lacking. Jackson in particular seems to have some strong supporters in the organization who think defense should be the priority.
I still think they lean toward Ball, but I’d put the odds somewhere like this: Ball 40 percent, Jackson 35 percent, Fox 25 percent.
I’ve covered Ball’s game and fit already, so I won’t get into that too much now. My simple summary, though: Ball’s offensive game and, specifically, his approach to playing the game (fast, fun, making the right play consistently) offer an almost perfect alignment with how Luke Walton wants his team to play. Combine that with Ball’s considerable ceiling and I think he’s the prime candidate for the #2 pick (assuming Markelle Fultz is drafted #1).
Saying all that about Ball, however, shouldn’t diminish the qualities Jackson brings to the table. Nor should they overshadow that Jackson, with his potential as a two-way difference maker, is also a very good fit for the Lakers in both the short and long term.
Let’s start with the obvious – Jackson has very good physical tools for an NBA wing. At nearly 6’8″, almost a 6’10” wingspan, and just over 200 pounds, Jackson has NBA ready measurables. Yes, I’d like for his length to be a bit better but this is in no way a deal breaker. His measurements (taken at the 2016 Hoop Summit) are nearly identical to Klay Thompson’s who has no difficulties guarding one-through-three at the NBA level. Jackson also has very good athleticism and a high motor, which, in some ways can make up for his lack of length.
I don’t want to oversell Jackson’s athletic prowess (he’s not a prime Vince Carter or anything), but it should be noted that if he were the pick he’d instantly become the team’s best athlete. He’s a very good leaper of one or two feet, which translates to an ability to play above the rim on both sides of the ball. He also possess very good quickness, which manifests in ways from being able to slide with ball-handlers off the dribble to getting off the floor quickly to challenge a shot or corral a rebound. He also changes ends quickly and shows very good explosiveness when getting downhill either off the dribble or on cuts to the basket.
Moving beyond the physical, Jackson’s game is a amalgamation of multiple skills wings need to be successful at the pro level. He’s a good ball handler who can create off the dribble for himself with straight-line drives off more basic moves (crossovers, spins, etc). He’s an excellent ball mover and passer who can do very well in the middle of the court either as a pressure release man or out of short rolls when he’s a used as a screener. He’s shown some ability to handle the ball in the P&R, showing deft recognition skills as a passer to his roll man and an understanding of where his shooters are spotting up around the arc.
While this type of spatial awareness isn’t at the level of Lonzo Ball’s or a guy like Ben Simmons (another ball-handling forward), it shouldn’t be downplayed. Much in the way that Brandon Ingram helped grease the wheels of the offense by making quick reads and passes that were on time and on target, Jackson offers similar ability. And while he’s not necessarily viewed as a “point forward” now, in time, I envision him being able to initiate the offense and work as a secondary ball handler while actions are run to get teammates in optimal positions to score as off-ball workers.
As a scorer, Jackson has several tools in his bag that should translate right away to the pro level. First, he can be a demon in transition, pushing the ball himself or filling the lane for easy baskets. Also, the same IQ that makes him a good passer translates to how he moves off the ball as a cutter, often showing a great awareness of when his man is cheating or not paying close enough attention. He does well to beat closeouts with hard drives to the rim and, once there, has excellent body control to finish around the rim if he’s not able to simply finish over the top with power.
Jackson also proved to be a “bucket getter” at the NCAA level. He improved his shooting as his freshman season progressed and was able to hit open shots created for him as a spot up option. He also showed enough of a varied attack in isolation, showing the requisite skill to either get off his jumper or get to the paint where he could create a shot. Also, because Jackson played a lot of PF at Kansas (more on this later), he was able to score on mismatches when he had an athleticism advantage (against bigger players) or get into the paint on post ups and duck-ins on switches (against smaller players).
For all the varied ways Jackson could help an offense, though, one of the key reasons he’d be in the conversation for the #2 pick is because of how he projects as a defensive player at the next level. If looking big picture, the one thing that stands out about Jackson defensively is how he competes on that end. He wants to guard the other team’s best player and relishes the opportunity to try to shut him down. He plays with a high motor and will show the desire to make the extra rotation or will chase the action when he’s behind the play in transition to contest shots from the arc to the rim. These are traits every team wants, but ones that the Lakers are especially lacking.
Additionally, when zooming in, he shows good fundamental ability as an individual and team defender. He can sit in his stance and slide with ball handlers and shows active hands both on and off the ball. He shows good instincts when rotating and can be a presence in the passing lanes or when challenging shots at the rim. Block and steal rates are stats which can indicate how defensive ability translates from college to the NBA and Jackson, with his combination of athleticism and instincts shows out well in these areas.
Of course, if you read the above, you might think Jackson is the next coming of Tracy McGrady or some other HOF two-way wing. And while Jackson’s ceiling is high, there’s a reason he’s not considered the top prospect in this draft and, in many lists by top college talent evaluators he’s behind both Fultz and Ball.
First, while I don’t think this is a huge deal, Jackson is almost a year older than most other freshman in his class. Jackson is already 20 years old and will be 21 in February of next season. For comparison’s sake, that’s only a year younger than D’Angelo Russell (just turned 21 on February 21st) and is actually 9 months older than Brandon Ingram (will not be 20 until September of this year). While I fully believe Jackson has plenty of time to improve and grow into the best version of himself as a player, scouts do value that extra year and it does impact how his development arc is viewed and his college stats will be interpreted.
Second, it remains unclear to me how Jackson playing so much PF in college will impact how smoothly he transitions to playing the wing in the pro game. At Kansas, a lot of the offensive actions Jackson was involved in were tilted towards how big men play, but in the NBA this will not be the case much, if at all, early on in his career. For instance, it remains to be seen how much Jackson will be used as a screener, how often he’ll be able to duck into the post on switches, or how often he’ll be spotting up while having a “PF” being the one closing out on him. These are all actions Jackson thrived at as a Jayhawk and I wonder what adjustments he can make if these actions are limited when he gets to the league.
Further, I question whether Jackson will capably slide up to PF at the pro level like he did at Kansas. Again, though he has the athleticism and “dog” in him to compete against bigger players, he’s not as long as other SF’s who slide up to PF — for example, Kawhi is an inch shorter than Jackson but has a 5 inch longer wingspan. That lack of length can hurt him on the boards, when contesting shots both at the rim and on closeouts, and on offense when bigger players are defending him. Ultimately, if Jackson ends up being more of a SF/SG rather than a SF/PF, not only does his utility change (which isn’t a huge deal), but it moves him further away from what he did at Kansas as mostly a PF and then, in theory, could negatively impact his transition to the pros.
This could end up mattering for a variety of reasons, but the most important is how Jackson’s shooting could impact spacing. While Jackson’s stats and skill set clearly point to a player with offensive ability, questions remain about how well his jumper will translate to the pro level. While his stats say he shot 37.8% on three pointers, reviewing the film on these shots adds needed context. Again, his logging so many minutes at PF matters. Operating on a spaced floor as one of the “bigs” meant he had more room to shoot those shots. And because of Jackson’s shooting form/motion — he has a low release point and brings the ball pretty far in front of his body as he raises the ball up to his release — getting that shot off cleanly against NBA wings will be a different experience than he had in college.
None of this is to say he cannot adjust or that with good coaching his mechanics won’t improve. And again, this cannot be ignored: he made shots at Kansas. So, some of the skepticism that exists around him is in spite of the numbers. That said, when you look at his FT% (mid 50’s) and note how that can translate to shooting ability, then add that to a longer NBA three point line, I think some of the doubts that exist are more than fair. And, in some real ways, actually worrisome.
And, believe me, teams are going to make Jackson prove he can shoot before they actually guard him like he can. This will mean fewer drives against close outs, teams going under screens on him when he handles the ball on the screen and roll, and, in general, fewer opportunities for him to work against the type of tight defense he can leverage his athleticism against to create drives and/or shots at the rim. In a vacuum, these are things that can be overcome. However, put him on this shooting starved Lakers’ roster and you can see how things could be dicey for him and the team as they deal with defenses who shrink the floor.
After saying all that, I don’t want to taint Jackson too much, if at all. He’s a really good prospect whose current skill set and abilities on both ends of the floor can make for a player who fills in a lot of gaps in the short term, and whose ability to grow current weaknesses while expanding on things he already does well make him a fascinating long term player. Then, with his competitive streak and the edge he plays with, it’s hard not to like what you’re going getting in him.
Ideally, in 5 years, you have a player who can make jumpers (spot ups and off the dribble when players go under screens), be a ball-handler in the P&R, and defend multiple positions. Add these skills to what he can currently do as a passer, cutter, and defender, and that would be a very good two-way wing. When looking at the Lakers, how many of those do they have? Yeah. In a less than ideal world, you have a player whose jumper is spotty, but has enough playmaking, passing, competitive fire, and defense to still be a high level rotation player for a long time. I mean, that sounds like a pretty good floor to me.
Does this mean that Jackson should be the pick? Personally, I still lean towards Ball. I think his defense will end up being good enough and that his skill set and style he brings to the table offensively can help be transformative to the Lakers’ roster. That said, Jackson is a more than reasonable pick too, even if I have him slightly below Lonzo. We’ll see how the Lakers view things on draft night.