The top prospects in the draft are usually flashy. High profile players usually put up big scoring numbers and were the best players on their team at every level, from high school through college and into the NBA. So, why is the “second best player” on Michigan St. who averages 10.9 points per game a projected top-five pick? Because Jaren Jackson Jr. brings so much more to the table than just his raw scoring.
Jackson never made his bones as a scorer in college, as he was rarely ever targeted in the post. When he was, he flashed some potential as a scorer down low. The first clip is arguably his biggest highlight of his college season, as it shows his potential to attack closeouts and finish at the rim (on top of being one of the best posters of the year). If his jumper translates, that ability to finish off the dribble is super valuable.
The last two clips are more traditional post moves. The jump hook at the end is particularly promising, and if he can develop that into a more consistent shot and be able to hit that with either hand, he could be a viable option down low.
However, there are some red flags. According to Hoop-Math, Jackson Jr. only shot 65.4% at the rim. While above average compared to most of the class, it ranks last among the elite big men and even behind some guards. Most of his problems come from a tunnel vision he acquires from time to time, something I’ll cover in more detail in the playmaking section.
Jackson is a competent shooter from mid-range, making about 41% on two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math. Recognizing how to beat the zone is one of his strengths, as he’ll often move to the elbow from the low block and pop a mid-range jumper before the defense can recover. He’ll also get into the space on the baseline near the pain and three-point line, although he’s less effective on offense from there.
His weaknesses with his jumper apply both in the mid-range and from deep, so I’ll talk about them here. Whenever the defense starts to crowd him, Jackson’s shot mechanics break down and he rushes to put up some kind of jumper/floater hybrid.
His mechanics aren’t terrible when he’s set, and as a 6’10” player with a 7’4″ wingspan, he should feel more comfortable getting shots up when smaller players come over to contest them.
This is where Jackson is best set to contribute to an NBA team on offense. For a big, his outside shot is very solid, making 39.6% of his threes on five attempts per 40 and shooting 79.7% from the free throw line. According to my slightly adapted version of the Nylon Calculus shooting formulas, he is projected at around 35.2%-36.4% from three, which is just about league average.
If he shoots this effectively from outside in the NBA, it not only opens up space for him to drive into the paint but also spaces the floor for his teammates, making him an ideal modern-day power forward.
While his assist rate would suggest he’s not a great passer (his 9.3% rate ranks near the bottom of the class), he actually shows some promise.
He’s at his best as a passer when he’s sucking the defense in, opening up large passing lanes that he can fit the ball in for easy buckets. The final clip exemplifies this well. He goes in for his usual spin move from the post, draws the second defender on a rotation, and hits the open man under the basket for a dunk.
At the same time, Jackson only averages two assists per 40 for a reason. When he gets the ball on offense, he’s doesn’t always look for the best pass or how to get his teammates open. He also tends to try to do too much at times, leading to some careless turnovers.
In the third clip, he catches the ball in the post, fails to recognize the oncoming double, and spins right into the oncoming defender. The fourth clip is just Jackson trying to do too much. The easiest play is to catch the ball at the elbow and make the cross-court pass to his teammate streaking into the corner. Instead, he opts for the spin move and loses control of the ball. The speed of the NBA game could take some getting used to on the offensive end, but when he gets used to it, expect the turnovers to come down.
Jackson is a solid rebounder for a power forward, averaging 10.6 boards per 40 minutes. He shows up on the offensive glass, using his energy and positioning to give his team second-chance opportunities.
However, in comparison to other elite bigs in this class, he’s below average as a rebounder, ranking last among the five lottery-projected bigs. He’s not terrible by any means, but he won’t dominate the glass to the level of some of his competitors.
Jackson Jr. will be one of the most valuable players on the defensive end of the floor from the moment he enters the league. Many NBA teams play a switch only defense, which requires their big guys to step out to the three-point line and contain guards. Jackson can do all that with ease.
He rotates well on pick and rolls. He slides his feet and keeps pace with guards, often baiting them into taking tough layups which he swats out of the sky. And he closes out well on shooters with his innate sense of timing when a shot is about to go up.
The reason Jackson Jr. is maybe my favorite player in the class (and projected to go so high in the draft) is due to his interior defense. His stock rate (combined steal and block rates) is 15.9%. Compared to some of the best defensive big men prospects of the past decade, Jackson Jr. ranks very high:
|Jaren Jackson Jr.||15.9%||86.4|
When the only players who rank higher on the defensive end are Anthony Davis and Hassan Whiteside (take a moment and marvel at that 20% stk rate), you’ve got a special prospect. And it’s not just the numbers that back it up, the tape says so as well.
He knows how to position his body very well on the defensive end, both fronting and in the post, and does a good job staying on the ground and not biting on shot fakes. The best part of both of the above clips is that he stays with the play until the end, blocking the follow-up shot even after denying his man the first time.
Rim protection is the most valuable thing in the NBA for a big-man prospect. No matter how adept you are on the offensive end, if you can’t protect the rim effectively, you’ll have a hard time finding a spot in the rotation (see: Okafor, Jahlil). If you look at the current playoff teams, almost all of them have a solid rim protector on the roster (Embiid, Davis, Horford, Green/Kevin Durant, Rudy Gobert, Tristan Thompson, Serge Ibaka, etc.) It should be no surprise that Jackson Jr. does this very well.
He wastes no time dissecting the play, so the second someone drives into the lane, Jackson recognizes it and rotates over to shut it down. The last two plays in the video are incredibly telling of a smart defensive player. In that first clip, he rotates over and blocks the shot, but instead of blocking it into the third row, he keeps the ball in bounds, grabs his own rebound, and starts the fast break. On the second play, he recognizes that a shot at the rim is coming, but instead of immediately going over, he keeps Marvin Bagley pinned behind him, effectively removing him from the play, before blocking the shot out of bounds.
What truly makes Jackson a special shot blocker is his rotation blocks. He wasn’t asked to stand under the rim most of the time, which is what you see from most high-volume shot blockers. Jackson will often rotate off of his man out on the perimeter to contest shots in the paint, but only after he identifies that his man is out of the play. As an NBA four, excelling as a weak-side shot blocker will make all the difference in the world.
Finally, Jackson is lethal in transition. He has the speed, timing, and wingspan to stop transition opportunities in their tracks and trap lay-ups against the backboard.
Based on all of the above defensive clips, it’s pretty obvious Jackson is a smart player. The one thing that gives me pause is Tom Izzo’s complete reluctance to play him in the NCAA Tournament. If he’s arguably your best player, why is he only playing 18 minutes? Is there something we don’t know that Izzo isn’t letting out? I doubt it, it just seems strange.
Overall, Jaren Jackson remains one of the most complete prospects in the draft, and maybe its most valuable defensive player. He’s also the youngest player in the draft since he won’t turn 19 until September. A great mix of potential offensive development and serious defensive upside should make Jaren Jackson Jr. a top five-pick in the draft come June.
(feature image from Michigan State Spartans)