Every NBA team wants a swiss army knife: a player that any given night will contribute in multiple ways. They are often nominally small forwards who are able to play or at least guard several positions. The NBA has many different versions of this guy: sometimes he quickly becomes the face of a franchise (such as Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler) and sometimes he’s an underrated all star who grows up to be a savvy veteran role player (a la Andre Iguodala or Mavs favorite Shawn Marion). Sometimes he’s even a diamond in the rough, picked in the second round, slowly groomed into a do-everything role player and then mercilessly traded away for the corpse of Rajon Rondo. (It still hurts sometimes, Jae Crowder.)
In this year’s draft, Kansas Jayhawks freshman Josh Jackson is the ultimate swiss army knife. If the Mavs were lucky enough to be able to draft him, Jackson would be a hell of a fit in a future Mavs frontcourt next to Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel.
College stat line
At Kansas, Jackson averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3 assists in 30.8 minutes per game with a PER of 24.5.
His measurables are average for a small forward: he’s 6’8” with a slight 207-lb frame and a wingspan of 6’10”. But Josh Jackson makes up for an average build with the strongest motor of any prospect in the lottery. He plays with high intensity, elite timing, and explosive athleticism on both ends of the floor.
Jackson is intriguing offensively because of his ability to score in multiple ways. He may not be elite at any one thing, but has a number of weapons at his disposal. His athleticism shines in transition, getting to the wing and playing above the rim. Jackson is active off the ball in half court sets and creates opportunities on the offensive glass. He has flashes of a perimeter shot and is sharpening a stepback jumper that should force defenders to respect his game.
Jackson’s defense is what sets him apart from the pack. He has ability to guard multiple positions with active hands that get in passing lanes and affect shots, and he averaged 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per 40 minutes in college. His defensive base is sound; he moves his feet well on the perimeter and utilizes his instincts, high-end lateral quickness and defensive IQ to draw charges and cause turnovers. Jackson takes pride in shutting opposing players down, and the energy that that can infuse a team with cannot be underestimated. A wing-forward that can be a versatile defender is a hot commodity in the NBA - just ask the glut of wings who teams just handed bundles of free agent cash last summer.
In a league that sometimes considers 23 old for a prospect, it should be mentioned that Jackson is the oldest top prospect (he turned 20 last February). With that in mind, is his frame still growing? Jackson spent stretches at KU playing power forward, creating positive mismatches against slower defenders. He’s going to need to add a good amount of muscle if he wants to translate this advantage at small ball power forward to the next level.
His competitiveness, at times, was a double-edged sword. He averaged 3 fouls per game and had a handful of technicals. That aggression needs to be harnessed better. Additionally, any team interested in Jackson would do well to investigate certain off-court incidents that raises some behavioral questions.
But the biggest on-court question is his shooting. Jackson’s streakiness showed when he followed up a hideous 23.6 percent on three-pointers (9 of 38) his first eighteen games, only to turn around a convert a stunning 48 percent of his threes (25 of 52) in the final eighteen. So which shooter is he? The mechanics of his jumper should leave GMs hesitant about his offensive ceiling. His motion isn’t the same every time, he short arms a lot of shots and he has a bad habit of taking an unproductive dribble in typical catch-and-shoot situations. His season percentages (55 percent on two-point shots and 38 on threes) hold up. But as with the other top prospects Fultz and Ball, Jackson is bafflingly bad from the free throw line, hitting only 57 percent from the charity stripe. His 20-percent shooting from the midrange and 28 percent off pick-and-roll and isolation plays (per Synergy) should further temper expectations of Jackson being any sort of shot creator.
Fit with the Mavericks
With a team in transition, tRick Carlisle and the front office have some decisions to make about what roles any particular member of a potential future core will play. His shooting questions aside, Josh Jackson would be an answer to more than a few of their questions.
Due to injuries and necessity, Harrison Barnes logged a lot of minutes at the power forward this season, and to Mavs fans’ delight, he thrived. With the emergence of players like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, Wes Matthews showed his versatility at the small forward position. But Matthews isn’t a long term solution at the 3, and should eventually move back to shooting guard. Plugging in Jackson as the small forward of the future would allow that move, and Barnes could fully step into his newfound position as the team moves into a post-Dirk future (if not next season, then the next, depending on Dirk’s retirement decision). It also leaves open possibilities of Barnes and Jackson playing interchangeably on the floor together. The athleticism and flexibility of a future defensive core of Matthews, Jackson, Barnes and Noel (assuming he’s a Maverick next year) - plus growth from Yogi, Curry and Dorian Finney-Smith - would demand respect. But alas, it will require the Mavericks picking in the top three to have such dreams.