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Josh Jackson’s Missing Ingredient

The Jayhawks freshman is a world-class athlete with an off-the-charts basketball IQ. He will be discussed as a no. 1 NBA draft pick come June, but his track to stardom depends on how he addresses his biggest flaw.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If basketball doesn’t work out for Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, he probably has a future in track and field. Even among a loaded freshman class composed of nearly a dozen players projected to go in this year’s lottery, Jackson’s athleticism is on a level all its own. Not only does he run faster, jump higher, and get off the ground quicker than just about every player in the country, he knows how to harness those tools within the context of a basketball game. Jackson makes one or two plays a game where he looks like an NBA player going up against college kids at a summer camp.

No fast break is safe against Jackson. At 6-foot-8 and 207 pounds, he has a rare combination of size and speed that allows him to eat up the space between him and anyone with a head start. With a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Jackson doesn’t have exceptional length for a player his height, so his ability to make these types of chase-down blocks tells you he’s getting really high in the air:

Kansas loves to run alley-oops for Jackson on set plays. He’s in the air so long that he can vacuum any ball into his catch radius and then throw it down with authority:

Even more impressive than his ability to move up and down is the way he moves side to side. Jackson plays like a video-game character whose turbo button is stuck; when he gets down in a defensive stance and slides his feet, it’s very difficult to get around him. Watch how easily he bottles up this isolation from Duke’s Luke Kennard — one of the top scorers in the country and an NBA prospect in his own right — staying in front of him without giving him room to raise up for the shot, then forcing Kennard to commit a turnover:

Jackson affects the game defensively in a way few young players do. In the last five years, there have been nine NCAA wing players taken in the top 10 of the NBA draft who are at least 6-foot-6, and none of them blocked shots and stole the ball at a rate anywhere near what Jackson has done in his first two months at Kansas:

Jackson’s defensive productivity is largely due to his aggressiveness; he averages 4.4 fouls per 40 minutes of action and has already fouled out of two games this season. Coach Bill Self has played Jackson almost exclusively as a small-ball power forward over the last month, which puts him in a lot of situations where he can both contest shots and pick up fouls. A season-ending injury to highly touted freshman center Udoka Azubuike in the middle of December thinned the Jayhawks’ big-man rotation, and neither Landen Lucas nor Carlton Bragg Jr. have been much of a threat on offense, making Self’s preferred two-post offense less effective than usual.

It’s a dramatic change of pace for Self, who is using Jackson much differently than he did Andrew Wiggins three years ago. Wiggins (6-foot-8 and 200 pounds) was about as big as Jackson is now, but he rarely (if ever) spent time as a small-ball PF. Without Azubuike, Lucas and Bragg are the only two traditional big men in the Kansas rotation, and they combine to average 35.8 minutes a game. In 2014, Self played four frontcourt players who were at least 6-foot-8 besides Wiggins — Joel Embiid, Tarik Black, Perry Ellis, and Jamari Traylor — and they combined for 80.5 minutes a game.

Self’s decision is partly a reflection of the state of his roster, but it’s also a nod to the way the game is changing at every level. Playing four-out opens up the floor for Jayhawks guards Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason to get into the lane, while also getting another shooter and playmaker in Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in the lineup. The key to making the lineup change work is Jackson’s ability to clean the glass and hold up in the post, and he has been respectable in both categories, averaging 6.2 rebounds per game and holding opponents to only 0.571 points per possession on post-up plays, according to the numbers at Synergy Sports.

One of the big questions when it comes to projecting Jackson is how much the team that drafts him will play him as a small-ball PF. In recent years, teams have found a lot of success by slotting bigger and more athletic wings at the 4 and creating mismatches against more conventional big men. Harrison Barnes has taken a leap forward in Dallas this season after moving full time to PF in the wake of injuries to Dirk Nowitzki, while Aaron Gordon’s progress in Orlando has stagnated because a crowded frontcourt rotation has pushed him to SF. However, even if the composition of his future NBA roster gives Jackson the opportunity to play at power forward, it won’t be an easy decision for his NBA coach, because Jackson has a shorter reach and a narrower build than players of his ilk drafted in the last five years.

The part of Jackson’s game that wouldn’t suit a move to small forward in the NBA, and his biggest red flag in general, is his poor perimeter jumper. He wasn’t considered a bad shooter coming into college, and the release on his jumper, while far from textbook, is not ugly enough to be considered broken. It’s not nearly as unorthodox as the way Lonzo Ball shoots, except Ball is making 3s and Jackson isn’t. His production on the perimeter just hasn’t been there; he is shooting 26.9 percent from 3 on two attempts a game, and the lack of success appears to have weighed on his game. He has lost confidence in his shot, passing up a lot of open looks within the flow of the offense.

“My mechanics could get a lot better. My confidence in the shot could get better. The biggest thing is having confidence in it,” Jackson told reporters earlier this year. “I will try to continue to get better. I see how hard the other guys go in practice, how bad they want to win. I don’t want to be the guy on the team who didn’t try hard enough.”

When Jackson is at the 3-point line, opposing defenders play way off him, daring him to shoot. By sagging so far from the arc, Jackson’s defender also clogs up the driving lanes for the rest of the Jayhawks players. At the NCAA level, Jackson is such a good athlete that the no-respect strategy is only so effective, since giving him too much room on the perimeter just allows him to get a running start and pick up momentum before he gets into the lane.

However, when going up against the type of defenders he will face in the NBA, Jackson’s poor jumper makes him relatively easy to defend. In this one-on-one sequence against Indiana’s OG Anunoby, Jackson ends up being forced into a pull-up jumper that has very little chance of going in, something that happens far too often when he’s asked to create his own shot:

Jackson is averaging 14.7 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting, mostly from getting out in transition, moving without the ball, crashing the offensive boards, and getting to the rim, where he’s a fairly creative finisher, particularly with floaters. When he’s asked to score from the perimeter, he’s a man without a country. According to the tracking numbers from Synergy Sports, Jackson is scoring only 0.789 points per possession on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 0.682 points per possession on jumpers he’s created off the dribble, which is the primary reason why he has been such a poor scorer in isolations and pick-and-rolls. He’s no higher than 36th percentile in the nation in either of these situations.

It’s still early enough in the season for him to turn around his shooting numbers, and his shot can look good at times when he’s stepping into it and shooting with confidence. His free throw percentage (54.2 percent on 4.5 attempts a game) is troubling, though. Being a bad free throw shooter in college often means a player will be a bad outside shooter in the NBA; below-average free throw shooters who shot well from the college 3, like Justise Winslow, have not been able to translate those percentages to the deeper NBA 3-point line. Through the first two months of the season, Jackson’s NCAA shooting numbers are as bad as any big wing drafted in the top 10 in the last five years:

The frustrating part about Jackson’s shooting woes is how well rounded he is in every other aspect of the game. He has a high basketball IQ and a great feel for the game, which you can see in his passing numbers, as he averages 3.1 assists on 2.2 turnovers a game. One of the most devastating plays in the Kansas playbook is the 4/5 pick-and-roll with Jackson and one of their big men; he has great vision, and he knows how to manipulate the defense to create an easy look for his teammates.

Jackson is a very unselfish player who regularly looks to pass once he gets into the lane. Azubuike’s injury will rob him of a lot of assists this season, since neither Lucas nor Bragg are anywhere near as capable at finishing.

No matter how gifted he is as a finisher and a passer, though, there’s a pretty clear ceiling to how good a wing player can be on offense without a jumper. Kawhi Leonard is the gold standard for players whose broken jumpers were fixed once they got to the NBA, but he’s the exception that proves the rule — and he was a career 74.4 percent free throw shooter at San Diego State. Jackson is also older than your average college freshman — he turns 20 in February, more than six months before Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram does. He is still plenty young enough to get better, but he may not have quite as much room to grow as some of the other players in his draft class. Either way, if there’s a tweak that could fix his shot, it’s not going to come from the Kansas coaching staff.

“Can he do things better with his shot? Absolutely. Can it become quicker? Absolutely,” said Self. “Now, can he tighten it up and do some things differently? Absolutely. But that will probably be on somebody else’s watch. That won’t be on our watch as much. I don’t see a reason why when you have a young man for a very brief period of time why you want to totally cloud his brain with something other than very, very few, simple things.”

If Jackson could consistently shoot, he would have an argument, along with Washington’s Markelle Fultz, as the no. 1 overall pick in the draft. But NBA teams can’t assume from his body of work that he can, which means teams will have three options as far as nurturing the talents he does have. It could try to live with his poor shooting at SF and make spacing the floor at the other four positions a priority, which is what Charlotte does with Kidd-Gilchrist. It could hope he becomes strong enough to survive as a small-ball PF and play him in the high post and as a roll man, similar to his role with Kansas. Or it could give him control of the offense and use him as a point forward, similar to what Milwaukee does with Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s the biggest stretch, as he would have to improve significantly as a ball handler and he doesn’t have anywhere near the length that allows Giannis to cover the length of the court with occasionally loose dribbling. But Jackson’s vision and passing ability make that at least a conceivable path.

Jackson’s defense is good enough that his NBA team could find a way to work around his lack of shooting. Nevertheless, poor shooting has been the Achilles’ heel of many similarly talented players, and NBA teams have a checkered history of being able to fix it. For as athletic and skilled as Josh Jackson is, the knock on him is simple: It’s hard to get excited about a prospect who can’t shoot.