If we here at Mavs Moneyball were sitting in all the tedious Dallas Mavericks draft meetings happening now, we’d be imploring them to take a long hard look at versatile Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr. The youngest freshman in this lottery class, who will be just barely 19 years old by training camp, Jackson embodies the modern NBA big man.
The son of current Director of Operations for the Women’s NBPA Terri Carmichael Jackson and 12 year NBA vet Jaren Jackson, JJJ has an athlete’s pedigree. Measuring last week at the combine a long and lean 6’ 11.25” and 236 pounds, Jackson recorded the third best wingspan at the event, an impressive 7’ 5.25”.
In his one season under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, he was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year — the second player to accomplish that in the conference’s very long history (Greg Oden was the first). He was also named to the All-Big Ten Third Team, and obviously the All-Freshman Team.
Though restricted some in his role as a Spartan, Jackson averaged 11 points, 5.8 rebounds, and a spit-take worthy three blocks in just under 22 minutes per game. For those not interested in math, that’s 18 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 5.5 blocks per 36 minutes. He also managed to shoot a cool 39.6 percent from deep, on nearly 100 attempts on the season. Mostly playing power forward in college, Jackson displayed a defensive instinct that stretched from the block all the way out to the perimeter, and an ability to play inside out on offense.
The expectations of an NBA big man are ever-expanding. It’s not that power forwards and centers are going away, it’s that they’re being asked to do far more than previous eras. Yes, we’re asking them to protect the rim and grab every rebound in the vicinity. But nearly just as important, we want to know if they can hit a three like a small forward or take someone off the dribble like a shooting guard. And in many ways this draft class embodies that ideal.
With those prerequisites, Jackson has the highest ceiling on both ends of the floor of any of this year’s big men. Every team wants that two way post presence, who can stretch the floor offensively, and switch all over the floor defensively. Jaren Jackson Jr. has already shown that potential.
Of the core big men featured in this year’s lottery class, JJJ is top two in three major categories. Jackson attempted 96 threes on the season, 38 more than any other big man on this list (Bagley took 58). In a league that wants to spread the floor with five players out on the perimeter, he should be comfortable there quickest. Already with a consistent stroke from distance, on his 58 attempts from NBA range, Jackson was a lethal 45 percent.
And though Jackson had to battle Izzo-approved big man Nick Ward for boards, his rebounding percentage doesn’t sit far behind Marvin Bagley III, who is often lauded for his ability to cover the glass.
But why Jackson projects so high is his defensive instinct at such a young age. Already possessing a solid foundation on the perimeter with a balanced base, quick feet, and an ability to read angles in the pick and roll, Jackson shouldn’t be at risk of getting run off the floor in a fast paced NBA setting. He has a natural feel as a shot blocker, both off the weak side, and as the primary rim protector. Here’s a breakdown from SB Nation in March:
Jaren Jackson Jr. is a MONSTER on defense! pic.twitter.com/1CL9MgWtXg— SB Nation (@SBNation) March 20, 2018
Jackson represents the present and future of what an NBA center should be. It will take some time, but his ceiling is sky high.
The two biggest knocks on Jackson are his average ability as a rebounder, and his issues with foul trouble. Partially due to playing out of position at Michigan State, and perhaps a lack of aggression on the block, Jackson needs to do more as a rebounder. It’s possible all it will take is more seasoning to his game, and playing the correct position. But either way, growth in that area is a must.
Of the 35 games he played at MSU, Jackson had four or more fouls in 18 of them. Not a great stat to have, and not uncommon from a young shot blocker. There will be an inevitable adjustment period when tasked with anchoring an NBA defense. The college game is officiated differently, so it’ll be interesting to see how many of those problems travel with him to the next level.
Drafting a player this high in the draft, you want to know he is a proven scorer. Some question his shooting motion, being a low release and pushing a bit. He’s found consistency with his jumper, and his length should help, but his mechanics will be something to monitor. He’ll need to improve his finishing around the rim (shot 64 percent at MSU). He’s shown ability to exploit mismatches with bigs who can’t match his quickness, but Jackson needs to find better strength inside three feet.
Jackson’s final weakness is not even really a weakness, but may affect which team drafts him. His ceiling is so high, but it may take him longer to get there than some of the other lottery prospects. Teams looking to draft him will have to consider if he matches the timeline they’ve put themselves on, or if his talent is worth going against that.
Fit with the Mavericks
Throughout this last season, Rick Carlisle made comments about needing big men that can stretch the floor offensively, as well as their responsibility to guard fives out to the three point line. It’s a tall task, and a hot topic of debate as all eyes are on the playoffs. But as it’s been stated above, Jackson should fit that ideal, even without hitting his ceiling.
Taking JJJ gives the Mavs a boost of athleticism, and a versatility on both ends that they’ve never had in a center. Jackson will give Dennis Smith Jr. a future pick and roll mate, with the young big man allowing Carlisle to tinker with actions out of the screen -- Jackson can set the screen and roll to the rim, leveraging his wingspan with DSJ’s athleticism, or he can pop out to the perimeter and hit the open three, or pull the defenders allowing DSJ a lane to the basket. An added element is Jackson’s ability to exploit close outs or flat footed big men.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is absolutely ridiculous pic.twitter.com/cnG3D5lH6c— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 21, 2018
On the other end, the Mavericks would get the anchor they’ve been looking for over the last seven seasons. The NBA is battling defensively by switching everything on the perimeter, and that’s been a weakness for Dallas for a while. Jackson could conceivably match up as a four or five on defense, giving Carlisle someone with elite length in space, without having to go smaller to battle teams running on ball actions. And ultimately, they’d have a young shot blocker with elite instincts.
There has been plenty of talk from Mark Cuban about their desire to be competitive next season. And while Jackson should be able to contribute, it will still take time for him to fully develop.
Comps are always tough, and a little unfair to make. If JJJ doesn’t reach his full potential some will probably compare him to Milwaukee Bucks big man Thon Maker. But on the high end, Jackson could become a longer more versatile Serge Ibaka, an Ibaka with an actual offensive game. Jackson has also drawn comparison’s to Pacers rising star Myles Turner.
Special thanks to The Stepien, The Ringer, and Sports-Reference.com.