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Future Sixers: Josh Jackson Could be a Star

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Jackson does a little bit of everything, and he does it real well.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas vs Davidson Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is going to focus on what he can’t do. So let’s start with what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court: an awful lot.

This is an incredibly impressive sequence from Kansas’ game against Davidson. He switches from a big player to a smaller guard on the perimeter, demonstrating his defensive versatility. He cuts off the drive and pressures Davidson’s point guard to pick up his dribble. Then Jackson blocks all passing lanes, forcing an ill-advised pass that Devonte Graham easily picks up.

Transitioning into offense, Jackson makes a good pass on the break, followed by penetration on the baseline and a great kick to the opposite wing for an open 3. Then, he fights for an offensive rebound out of his area and gets a putback for 2 points. That’s an awful lot of ability packed into a 30 second span.

Jackson’s big impact begins on the defensive end, where he’s the kind of elite-level perimeter stopper that merits comparison to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kawhi Leonard. At 6’8 with a 6’10 wingspan, elite agility, and explosive vertical athleticism, Jackson’s physical tools fit the part. His numbers match up favorably as well.

While MKG and Kawhi had outlier rebounding numbers, Jackson’s remain very strong among wings. It’s the other defensive metrics where Jackson stands out— his steal and block rates dwarf theirs, and his combined rates would place him in the 97th percentile of NBA prospects since 2011, were he to maintain them over the full season. Only KJ McDaniels, with his outlier block rate, OG Anunoby as a freshman, and Derrick Jones have topped his 8.4 combined rate in that time. Jackson’s Defensive Box Plus Minus, similarly, places him in the 92nd percentile.

The stats match the eye-test, where Jackson truly looks like an elite defender. The first thing you notice is Jackson’s activity and intensity, which are often evident from the very first play. Against Nebraska, he twice zipped into the passing lane to deny a simple ball reversal on the initial defensive possession. While he wasn’t directly responsible for resulting turnover, his contributions to a solid defensive possession flustered the Nebraska offense.

On defense, he’s a swiss-army knife who can bang down low— he has largely played at the 4 for the Jayhawks this year and has surprising, wiry strength— or switch onto the perimeter and shuffle his feet in space. Watch how quickly he jumps out to prevent an open shot by Anton Gill, followed by a controlled close-out, shuffling his feet to prevent an easy driving lane, and a forced shot by Gill that proves no threat to the KU defense. It’s reminiscent of Andre Iguodala’s closeouts in the playoffs.

He’s excellent in pick-and-roll defense as well, where he slithers over picks and cuts off ball-handlers before they reach their spot.

Jackson has quick hands and is equally quick off his feet, allowing him to accrue steals and blocks at astonishing rates. Some people have expressed concern over his wingspan— at 6’10, it’s a few inches shorter than the ideal for a wing defender. However, his ability to utilize the length that he does have should put those doubts to bed. If you can do this, your length is probably not an issue.

And here’s another defensive highlight, just because he’s a freak and this is a lot of fun.

Sorry, I can’t stop. Last one:

What are perhaps more impressive than the sheer number of live-ball turnovers Jackson creates are the numerous dead-ball turnovers he forces as well. Whether it’s due to a travel, a pressured pass flung out of bounds, or a jump-ball, Jackson consistently has a higher impact than his pure TO numbers communicate. In the Nebraska game alone, I counted 5 occasions in which he created a dead-ball TO. He regularly causes 3-4 a game, which is no joke.

With elite defensive potential and a broken shot (yes, we’ll get to that shot), Jackson projects, at the very least, to be a defender in the MKG, Andre Roberson, Al-Farouq Aminu mold— someone who is a total lockdown on opponents’ best perimeter creator and can guard positions 1-5.

But Jackson offers so much more on offense than any of those players did entering the league. If the Warriors guarded Jackson with Bogut in a playoff series, they would be made to pay. That starts with his ability off the bounce. He has a strong handle and a better first step, allowing him to be a real threat to penetrate off the bounce. Unlike some other recent athletic prospects, he has real touch around the rim, and has shown the ability finish with both his right and his left hand.

He even has a nice little touch on his floaters, which makes him a threat to pull-up short of the basket and finish over the toughest rim protectors.

Jackson doesn’t have impressively high unassisted FG’s at the rim, but that’s in part because he doesn’t drive only to score. Perhaps the most impressive part of Jackson’s game has been his vision and his willingness to seek out the best play. He’ll often end his drives with a kick-out to an open shooter after the defense has collapsed on him. It’s a good read for a high-quality shot that will continue to pay dividends in the NBA.

Vick doesn’t pull the trigger here, but put a better shooter in his place (or Embiid!), and it’s an easy +3 for the home team. (Notice, too, Jackson’s energy on the O-boards to win an easy putback here. Dude’s motor runs all kinds of hot.)

Jackson’s passing should not be undersold. It’s a genuine strength of his and it’s a skill that importantly differentiates between spot-up shooters and more versatile contributors on the offensive side of the ball. It’s what sets someone like Nicolas Batum apart from some lesser big wings— he creates not only for himself, but also for his teammates. Jackson’s vision portends higher potential in the NBA if he, like Batum, can ever fix his broken shot. With an 18.5% assist rate, Jackson is elite among players of his size.

Chris Stone has written on Jackson a few times this year, highlighting his ability to create for his teammates in multiple articles. In his first piece, he highlighted that Jackson’s unique combination of defense and ability to create for teammates is a rare trait, and one that should be coveted among NBA prospects. Then, in one of the most interesting posts I’ve read about college prospects this year, he pointed out the incredible efficiency Jackson has generated with his passes.

At the time of Stone’s writing, Jackson had created 37 assists, with all but 3 of them turning into layups, dunks, or 3-pointers. That’s a remarkable 92% of assists generating the two most efficient shots in basketball. The trend may be a little fluke-y or noisy at this point in the season, but at the very least it speaks to Jackson’s understanding of the game to consistently seek out high-quality shots.

This isn’t to overstate his decision-making, though. Jackson is a very smart player who understands the game well, but he is somewhat turnover prone and can be subject to some bad shot selection. Several times in my notes against Nebraska, I noted that he shouldn’t have pulled the trigger on a shot, or that he missed Landen Lucas for an easy pass in transition.

The decision-making is likely to improve as he grows though. By far the biggest worry with Jackson is his shot, and it is definitely a worry. At only 26.9% on 3FG’s and 54.2% from the line, Jackson’s shot is almost certainly broken. It has started to exhibit itself in game action, too, where Jackson has been reluctant to shoot a 3 despite the situation clearly dictating that it is a good shot. Kansas hasn’t shown much interest in reworking his shot, and his form is clearly not in a good spot.

The one bright shot has been his mid-range game, where he’s shooting a respectable 41% according to Hoop-Math, and where he has looked more comfortable too, via the eye test. His shot is at its most relaxed coming off the dribble, which is an abnormality among most players. That will likely regress, but if it doesn’t, it offers a glimmer of hope.

Still, even without a working jumper, Jackson has too many tools not to be a useful player on offense. If he can get his jumper to the low bar of 30-33% from deep, he should be enough of a threat so that the rest of his game will open up. With his handle and passing ability to go with his top-tier defense, it seems unlikely that Jackson will be anything other than a positive at the next level. For a Sixers team short on both talent and numbers on the wing, Jackson is a chance worth taking. The rest of the game is there— if he can ever figure out his jumper, he’ll be a bona fide All-Star.

Future Sixers Point Guard Rankings:

It’s the holidays, so I don’t have too much time to do the rankings this week. I’ll just put them in my personal order without any explanation, and y’all can argue about why I’m being ridiculous, or not.

  1. Markelle Fultz, Washington
  2. Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg
  3. Dennis Smith, NC State
  4. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
  5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
  7. Edmond Sumner, Xavier

I wouldn’t draft either of the last two guys, but that’s me.

What to Watch This Weekend:

The Christmas holidays mean almost no one is playing in the NCAA. Watch the NBA instead. There’s a great slate of games on Christmas, so give them a watch.