|Michigan State (Fr.)
There has been a lot of debate about who is the best big man in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. is at the forefront of that discussion. He is projected by some to go as high as third overall in the draft. Not yet 19 years old, Jackson is currently the fifth-youngest prospect on our draft board, and many analysts cut him a little more slack than other prospects due to his age and relative inexperience, even compared to other freshman. It’s easy to see why some people are so high on him, but at the same time, there are concerns about his game.
Despite playing limited minutes (21.8 per game) this past season, Jackson finished seventh in the NCAA (DI) in blocked shots, averaging 3.0 per game. He totaled 106 blocks, establishing a new Michigan State single-season record. He finished fifth on the team in scoring with 10.9 points per game, shooting 51.3 percent from the field, making 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, and shooting 79.7 percent from the free-throw line. He also averaged a solid 5.8 rebounds per game. His most impressive stat was that he ended his freshman campaign with a plus-minus of 15.4, which was the second highest in the nation, trailing only Cincinnati’s Gary Clark. Jackson capped off the season by being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year, becoming just the second player in Big Ten history to win both awards in the same season.
From a physical standpoint, Jackson has a solid frame, but he has yet to completely fill out. He has long arms and legs, which give him somewhat of a gangly appearance, but he has plenty of muscle, too. He has good speed, quickness, and jumping ability for a big man, but like many tall, long prospects, he is not a particularly fluid or dynamic; in fact, he can look awkward at times. His own length hinders his ability to make agile movements, and it occasionally appears that he is not in total control of his own body – Jackson himself has commented on how he has had some difficulty adjusting after growth spurts and rapid muscle gains. Additionally, Jackson is somewhat unconventional; for example, he heavily favors his left hand for dribbling, dunking and blocking shots, despite shooting jumpers and foul shots with his right hand.
Much like his father, Jaren, Sr., who was a shooting guard in the NBA for 12 years and won a championship in 1999 with the San Antonio Spurs, Jaren, Jr. is a perimeter-oriented player who likes to shoot 3s. The obvious differences between the two are that the son is much taller and plays a different position. Nearly 39% of younger Jackson’s half-court shots this season were jumpers, and 96% of those were 3-point attempts. On those jumpers, he averaged 1.09 points per possession, ranking at the 81st percentile.
Jackson’s shooting motion has an awkward look to it, appearing as if he is pushing the ball. In other words, he appears to release the ball late, with more of a forward motion than an upward motion, and in combination with his length, the distance between his head and the ball at its release point is unusually long. Despite the late/elongated release, his shots generally have a good arc to them, and his mechanics were not really an issue at college, where he almost exclusively shot catch-and-shoot jumpers. However, his overall shooting motion also tends to be slow, so there is reason to question how he will fare from a greater distance against longer NBA defenders, and if he will ever be effective shooting off the bounce.
In general, Jackson’s ability to make plays from the perimeter is a concern. The majority of his touches (24%) this season came from spot-up situations, and most of the time, he did not put the ball on the floor, preferring to catch and shoot. He attempted just four jumpers off the bounce all season, making one. When going to the basket, he mostly did so with the left hand, and rarely, if ever, drove to the right. There were a few occasions when he used crossovers, but overall, he showed little ability to do anything other than aggressively attack the basket in a straight line. This season on drives to the basket in spot-up situations, he averaged one point per possession (45th percentile), and on isolation drives, he fared worse, averaging .75 points per possession (33rd percentile).
A little less than 15 percent of Jackson’s touches came in the post this season, and though his post-up repertoire is rather limited, the results were impressive, as he averaged 1.23 points per possession and ranked at the 98th percentile. He basically scores with either running hooks or dunks/layups, but he gets those shots in a variety of ways. He can shoot with either hand, and he sets up those shots with quick spins or drives in either direction. He also has a deadly drop step that he likes to use on the right block. What he isn’t comfortable doing in the post is shooting jumpers – according to Synergy, he took no face-up or turnaround jumpers this season.
Only 7.5 percent of Jackson’s possessions came as a screener off the pick and roll this past season, and most of them resulted in jumpers off slips and pops. Not once this season did he touch the ball as a roller to the basket. Overall, he averaged 1.11 points per possession (67th percentile) off the pick and roll.
Not rolling to the basket is just one example of Jackson preferring to play on the perimeter despite his size, and when compared to the other top big men in this draft, he doesn’t spend as much time around the basket, and is not as physical. Jackson is a good rebounder, but not a great one – he was just the fifth-best rebounder on his team per 40 minutes. Jackson is effective around the basket, but he rarely scores on plays such as alley oops, and his field-goal percentage at the rim (65%) is not among the elite. He is also not a rim runner, as he prefers shooting 3s in transition rather than slamming down dunks. The result of all of these factors is that the combined number of baskets that he made this season from offensive rebounds, cuts to the basket, and transition was 55. In comparison, Duke’s Marvin Bagley made 57 buckets on putbacks alone. Jackson’s efficiency in all of these areas was well above average, with the points per possession ranging from 1.23 to 1.28 and the percentile ranking ranging from 66th to 86th, but the fact of the matter is that none are really his cup of tea.
Jackson did his best work this past season on the defensive end of the court. He ranked second in the country with 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes, and of all of the top big men in this draft, he trailed only West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate and Texas’ Mo Bamba in blocks per field goals attempted against (see table at bottom). Jackson’s shot-blocking numbers are even more impressive when you consider that he mostly played at the power forward spot and had to defend on the perimeter more than centers like Konate and Bamba. As an overall defender, Jackson held his opponents to .67 points per possession (93rd percentile) and a field-goal percentage of only 27.3. For adjusted field-goal percentage, which counts a 3-pointer made as 1.5 field goals, he ranked fourth in the country among all players who defended at least 200 possessions, holding the opposition to just 31.7 percent. The only area where he didn’t perform well above average was defending the pick and roll, but even then, he was more than adequate.
Jackson excels on the defensive end due to a fairly rare combination of length, speed, timing, awareness, aggressiveness, and effort. He is quick to rotate to stop dribble penetration, and he is also very aggressive when helping from the weakside. It is not uncommon to see him cheat off his man and wander into the paint, looking for a potential block. Frequently, this strategy pays off, but sometimes, he is burned because he cannot recover to the shooter in time. He is usually very effective hedging and switching, and in one-on-one situations, there are many times when his opponents are forced to use stepbacks or other difficult moves to avoid having their shots swatted away. Jackson is not immune to being beaten off the dribble, but his length and long strides allow him to make up a lot of ground in a hurry, so even when a player does drive past him, there is a good chance that he will recover to block, or at least bother, the shot. And lastly, he gets his paws on a lot of balls, be it deflections, steals, or rebounds.
The downside to being such an aggressive defender was foul trouble for Jackson, who averaged 3.2 fouls per game and 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes. His foul woes were not only due to aggressiveness, however. Guarding smaller, quicker players on a regular basis took its toll as well because he simply could not consistently keep up without fouling. I believe that if he played more often at the 5 spot, he would have avoided a good number of the fouls that he picked up.
Jackson’s constant foul trouble led him to averaging less than 22 minutes per game, and hurt his overall productivity, but ball-security issues and poor playmaking skills likely cost him playing time, too. He averaged 1.8 turnovers per game this season, and 17.2 percent of his possessions resulted in turnovers. He also averaged just 1.1 assists per game this season, giving him an assist-turnover ratio of .63. In the post, he ranked at the 28th percentile in terms of passing efficiency, and that lack of efficiently apparently cost him playing time at the most critical time of the season. A source close to the team told me that the reason Jackson played only 15 minutes in the NCAA Tourney loss to Syracuse was due to his inability to facilitate in the middle against the Orangemen’s zone. Instead, the Spartans went with a seldom-used senior, Ben Carter.
When evaluating Jackson, you cannot ignore that he played 20 or fewer minutes in 9 of his last 13 games, including 3 of 4 in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments combined. People often make their case for Jackson using per-40 stats, but if have to look at his per-40 numbers, it might be an indication that something is off. Yes, Michigan State had a deep frontcourt, and there were not enough minutes to go around, but Jackson was not losing playing time to other future lottery picks. Of course, he would have played more if it were not for the foul trouble, but the foul trouble isn’t going to simply go away. With experience, he should learn to play without fouling so much, but at the same time, he is going to be defending much more skilled players who will be more difficult to guard without fouling. And the fact of the matter is that foul trouble wasn’t the main reason that he didn’t play in the Spartans’ two most critical loses of the season, vs. Michigan in the Big Ten Tourney and vs. Syracuse in March Madness. The best case that one can make for Jackson is that he was second in the country in plus-minus, but unfortunately, that only makes his lack of playing time a bigger head scratcher. I believe that the only reasonable conclusion that one can make is that there are certain holes in Jackson’s game that prompted Coach Tom Izzo to limit the freshman’s minutes.
I will be the first to admit that when I first watched Jackson play this season (vs. Duke), I had visions of Kevin Garnett and Serge Ibaka, and he may play at that level at some point. He’s only 18, so his potential for growth is greater than most other prospects. His general awkwardness might improve significantly over the next few years, for example. Playing at the five spot in the NBA should help reduce his foul trouble, and I think that he will definitely be an asset on the defensive end of the court. On the offensive end, I have concerns that his outside shot will not translate to the NBA, and I do not believe that he will ever be much of a factor off the dribble from anywhere other than the post. If either are the case, Jackson is going to have to learn to play with more physicality, spend more time around the basket, and expand his post-up game. So, in my opinion, there are too many “ifs” about Jackson to merit him being a top-3 selection, and I would not be totally shocked if he slipped out of the top 10.
Shot Blocking Stats
|%BLK per FGA Against
|BLKs per 40
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports and RealGM, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports Reference. Photos are courtesy of Michigan State Athletics.