This piece will look at Josh Jackson while skirting about important issues like cognitive dissonance and how initial impressions can bias us.
My first impression with Josh Jackson was that he was really smart, competitive, decently skilled and jump out of the gym athletic. He also has cool hair and smiles a lot. In other words, he looked like a prospect with very high upside. It was only later that I realized that my first impression might be wrong. Wrong, not because there isn’t a lot to like about Josh Jackson, but rather because his inadequacies as a a player and prospect are perhaps being masked by his college position. One problem: Due to playing Power Forward, Jackson rarely ever gets matched up against really athletic players.
Let’s watch Jawun Evans destroy Josh Jackson, while others finish over Josh Jackson at the rim.
So you’re saying, Jawun Evans is really fast. Maybe Jackson won’t have to guard players like Evans at the next level. Okay, so now let’s watch watch Esa Ahmad do the same thing.
We’re talking about winning on movement (first play, the same kinds of curls which Jackson wins with) and beating Jackson back in transition in the first two plays. (Winning with movement is a constant theme.) In the third, we’re talking about Ahmad beating Jackson off the dribble, with a not especially sudden move. (Jackson somewhat lazily clears traffic, gives a half step to Ahmad and can’t recover.) We’re talking about Ahmad posting Jackson for which Self’s answer was to compromise the defense by sending a double team.
Later we even see a bull-rush where Ahmad wins on a drive because he’s stronger. (One problem with the Jimmy Butler comparison is that Jimmy Butler is exceptionally strong for his size. A fact that was true even when he was smaller, and we could say the same about Andre Iguodala.) We also see a series of plays in which Ahmad steals a Jackson pass only to get the ball back on the other side and beat Jackson clean. It got so bad that Kansas went zone. That’s with only Ahmad and Adrian really having efficient days from the field.
Okay, so what’s next? How about Deonte Burton? You only have to watch the first play of this one.
But let’s watch the whole of this next guy.
How does Burton not beat Jackson over the course of these two games? Post ISOs. Lazy close-outs. Blow-bys, which have an ancillary effect of backing Jackson off his body on future plays. Jackson clearly doesn’t think he can hang with Burton off the dribble, but he also can’t contest Burton’s shots from such a distance with his short arms.
I lost track of how many threes Jackson surrendered here. It was a lot.
You may ask, why am I singling out these games? It’s not just because Jackson wasn’t very good on defense, but offense as well.
This is a nasty trick. I’ve basically taken Jackson at his worst and shown you what his averages are over these four games. However, we can see, thanks to Sports-Reference, that these kinds of Assist-Turnover numbers aren’t really restricted to a sample of four games, but are more a product of tougher Conference Play.
Good shooting stats. Decent rebounding stats if we don’t break down the Offensive and Defensive Rebounding percentages. But these are not the kinds of turnover numbers that Primary Intiators put up in college, at least not Initiators likely to be on highly competitive teams.
Yes, Josh Jackson has vision and can pass, but being able to handle the ball and make decisions without turning it over is one of the biggest keys when hypothesizing who might end up an initiator in the future. I think we can also see that players being able to find makable shots at elite rates allows a decent amount of wiggle room when projecting a prospect’s future passing ability. (Yes, I am saying Malik Monk is far more likely to end up an Initiator on a successful offense than Josh Jackson.)
It gets worse when you consider that much of Jackson’s success comes because he plays every game with a mismatch. An NBA level athlete at Wing playing against college level athletes at Power Forward and Center.
And that a disproportionate amount of Josh Jackson’s college success either comes in transition, on weave plays (which aren’t going to be there in the NBA), when he catches the ball in the paint (also not happening as much) or off of an offensive rebound. (Not so much either.)
This is one Josh Jackson’s best games. 31 points. Lots of dunks and scores at the rim, but most everything is in transition or against Zach Smith. And while Jackson clearly has the green light to take players off the dribble, he doesn’t choose to attack Justin Gray in that way. He made a couple of plays against him. One in which he let a screen set itself and got an open 15-foot jumper. Another in which he was too strong for Gray in the post. But there is no longer the blow-by speed we see when Jackson gets a mismatch against Zach Smith or a Tech big. (Niem Stevenson can score but he kind of has lead feet.)
Another thing to keep an eye on: one of his assists come off an offensive rebound. An action which shows positive vision and decision making but is unlikely to translate directly into production at the next level, since most teams won’t choose to send him to the offensive glass.
We see the same kinds of assists in this game. Three out of the five off of interior touches or in transition.
This hesitation dribble might be the single best maneuver I’ve seen Jackson make. He’ll need moves like that to win at the next level. But after that we see another interior pass that leads to an assist. It’s a great play, but it’s not one we should expect Jackson to make at the next level.
That’s not to say I’m poo-pooing Jackson’s passing ability. He’s legitimately very good. He’s excellent at feeding the post. (We can see examples in these highlight packages.) He has good play recognition. He can drive and kick. But there are legitimate reasons to believe Jackson’s passing prowess is not going to translate in the same way as a player like Markelle Fultz. It’s quite possible that Jackson’s assist numbers will be slashed in the way Jeff Green’s were after making the jump from Georgetown. (Green was not as sudden, but excelled at the same types of plays we see Jackson excelling with now.)
That’s why the games vs. West Virginia and Iowa St. are so important. These are pretty much the only teams Jackson has played against where consistently faces off against the kind of athletes he’s going to see at the NBA level, at least if he plays on the Wing. And if Jackson plays at Power Forward, most of his defensive advantage should come when he switches onto smaller, quicker players on screens. If Jackson’s susceptible to ISO blow-bys when he’s even or a half beat behind smaller, quicker players, that’s not going to work very well.
That’s not to mention that Jackson has also struggled defensively on guys who actually project at Power Forward like Dean Wade of Kansas State, who was able to shoot over him. Let’s forget that. Even in the scenario Jackson is successful offensively and defensively as a Small Ball Four, smart NBA teams will eventually downsize and force Jackson to beat players who are not only as quick as him, but very often bigger than him. (Lebron, Giannis, Durant, Kawhi, Roberson as examples.) So we’re talking quite possibly about regular season success and Playoff difficulty.
That seems like one of the better scenarios in terms of Jackson as an Initiator on offense. But let’s say, I’m wrong. Let’s say Josh Jackson is really the next Andre Iguodala, Paul George, Jimmy Butler or Gordon Hayward and not the next Richard Jefferson.
Next we’ll see two tables that demonstrates why these kinds of players never win Championships when they are the first or second best player on a team.
Why Only Exceptional Wings Should Be Initiators
This first table will show you a number of the games best passing Wings over the last few years. We’ll see some guys who were actually good enough to be consistent initiators of offense on really good offensive teams. I’m talking Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony. (When he was younger, as now, defense was a much bigger problem than offense.) We’ll also see a number of players who really shouldn’t be the Primary Initiators of NBA offenses. Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce, Nic Batum and Gordon Hayward. And we’ll see one player that falls somewhere in between: Jimmy Butler.
1) One thing to note is how the offensive efficiency of these player’s teams dramatically kicks up when they are no longer the best initiator on their team. We can see it with Andre Iguodala, with Paul George, with Nic Batum, with Gordon Hayward. (Unfortunately for Paul George, George Hill is being utilized in much more aggressive way with Hayward than he ever was while playing besides George. The Jazz have a 113.9 ORtg when he’s on for comparison.) We can even see it with Vince Carter after he gets traded to the Nets.
2) Only Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony are somewhat immune to this effect. Of course, the offense gets better when they have better teammates, but they were able to carry offenses to nearly the same place when they were by far the best player on their team. I don’t think this is all incidental. It’s because they were simply better offensive players than their counterparts, with the possible exclusion of Carter and Butler.
3) One reason why these players don’t function very well as Primary Initiators is that they struggle to generate efficient shots for themselves. Paul George eFG% didn’t break 50% from 2012-2016. Gordon Hayward’s jumped 3-4% points this year, perhaps because his assisted 2PA jumped from 30 or 32% in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 42% this year. Jimmy Butler is straddling 48.5%, which is only sustainable offensively because he gets to the free throw line nearly 10 times a game. Batum’s eFG% has dropped from mid 50s career numbers to sub 50 numbers in Charlotte.
Even Carmelo and Pierce have noticeably better numbers when playing with good Point Guards, jumping from around 50% to the mid 50s, but with much higher Usage than a player like Batum, who at that point could be defined as mostly a 3&D type player. Andre Iguodala has made the same leap and is actually up to a 57% Effective Field Goal Percentage this year.
4) One of the interesting things is how a player like Batum actually becomes less effective as his game grows. This is mostly due to the fact that Batum’s Field Goal numbers really can’t handle the burden that Charlotte’s offense puts him under. Not on a consistent basis. And while he’s a good passer, he’s not good enough to make up the gap.
We can see a distinct downward trend in Batum’s Field Goal efficiencies corresponding to an upward trend in play-making. (Assists.) And we see a similar downward trend in Assisted Two-Point and Three-Point Field Goals. From a high of 77% down to a low 43% from Two-Point Range. From a high of 98% down to a low of 77% from three.
I can see why players want to create. They end up making far more money. However, teams want to win should be in no rush to change Nic Batum, who early on looked in line for a Shane Battier type career, into a sub-standard initiator. (Yes, Batum is really, really good. But we’re talking about in comparison to guys like Lebron and Steph Curry and Chris Paul.)
5) One natural conclusion from this argument is that BPM and RPM overestimate the impacts of certain players, at least as they might correspond to Winning basketball games. I’m talking about players like Jimmy Butler, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins. Each of these players have been Top 10-15 RPM kings in recent years. However, it’s very likely that these players would put up lower totals on more successful teams. The reason being that they would use less possessions and take many more assisted shots. And as their Usage dropped and they transitioned more into the role of finishers, their Assist totals would likely diminish or stagnate as well.
We’ve seen this with Paul George this year (Assist Percentage down from 20.3% to 15.7%) and while this is not the best Pacers team he’s belonged to, it is far and away the best offensive team he’s been on.
6) Another good example of this effect is Dwyane Wade.
Look at Wade before and during the Lebron years. We see a noticeable drop in Assist Percentage, Usage and BPM as Wade transitions to a secondary player. That is to say, it’s pretty myopic just to ask how valuable a player is outside of their team context. The much better question is this: How valuable that player might be on a championship level team?
For players like Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Andre Iguodala, the guys that some are positing as best case scenarios for a player like Josh Jackson, it’s quite likely to be a lot less than when they are the boss. (Also, these guys were all better defenders than Jackson at the same age. They all have superior on-ball reactions and strength at the Point. Two of them are also significantly longer.)
7) One place where Wade is perhaps an exception to this rule is that he arguably could have still been a Primary Guy with better secondary options around him. Why? He was still really good at scoring efficiently and creating opportunities for his teammates.
8) That’s the other problem with these players as creators. They simply don’t do that much for their teammates. If we remember the Synergy passing stats for January, we can see this.
These are the top passers in the league. The best guys, like Lebron, Paul, Harden, Westbrook, Curry, Wall all score as well. Where do we see Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Nic Batum? Most of them aren’t on this list. Whereas Batum and Butler are 18th and 22nd best in January in terms of generating Potential Assists per 36. So not only do these players not score like the elite initiators of the game, they don’t come close to passing like them either. Indeed, they are generating half as many Assist opportunities as the best guys, Chris Paul and James Harden. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Chris Paul and James Harden are the captains of winning teams while the Bulls, Pacers, Jazz, and Hornets are relatively stuck.
Let’s Look At The Games Best Point Guards
1) Here we see that Worst Years by the best Primary Creators (I’ve excluded rookie years) are generally better than the best years by our Wing group. Especially the 2nd tier guys of the Wing group.
2) That’s not necessarily just true for young guys. It was true for post micro-fracture surgery 40 year old John Stockton too. Yes, I know he’s an all-time great. I’m just trying to suggest that the part where the Initiator creates good shots for others at elite rates is actually important.
3) We’ll get back to it more in the next piece, which will be about Initiators. However, what I’m suggesting here is that Josh Jackson will almost certainly not be a Primary Initiator on a really good team. He looks like a 2nd, 3rd or 4th offensive piece. And that’s only if his defense improves a lot. For that, he’ll also need to shoot from the field.
4) One thing you’ll notice about guys like Paul Pierce and Vince Carter is that each player has over 8 years when they shot better than 38% from three-point range. Another thing you’ll notice is that only Paul Pierce one a Championship. Of course, Pierce also wasn’t a secondary player on offense.
Secondary players really need to shoot so that they don’t kill space. Iguodala has been a consistent 35% shooter from distance since he joined the Warriors. Something like that is probably going to be necessary for Josh Jackson. And then we’re still glossing over the fact that Jackson is not the defender that Iguodala is and probably never will be.
Josh Jackson Comparison Book or For A Freshman, Josh Jackson Is Really Old
Josh Jackson is currently 20. Due to an arbitrary quirk (the cut off is February 1st whereas Jackson’s birthday is February 10) this is his Age-19 season. Considering he’s a half year to full-year older than most Age 19 players (Andre Iguodala’s birthday, for example, is January 28) it doesn’t really make sense to compare him to Age 19 Freshman. Josh Jackson is effectively a 20-year old, the same as many Sophomores and some juniors.
It’s a fact we should really keep that in mind when comparing him to other players. Indeed, I’ve already manipulated the ages a little in the table above with Malik Monk and Michael Jordan. As their birthdays are February 4th and February 17th respectively. They are/were technically Age 18 Freshman, but a guy like Andre Iguodala was effectively the same age as them in his Age 19 Freshman season. While also being nearly a full year younger than Josh Jackson.
That’s why I’ve listed Josh Jackson as 20 in the table below. Please also note that the numbers are a mix of Pace Adjusted and Non Pace Adjusted Numbers. I updated a table I made last year to talk about DeAndre Bembry, but didn’t want to re-input all the numbers. So take the exact numbers with a small grain of salt. I also included guys who were in the league at 20. Their numbers are Per 36 according to basketball-reference, instead of being per 40. It’s no big deal. The point of including them is to suggest that all-time greats are likely to dominate in college, especially when they constantly see favorable match-ups. It’s for the same reason I included Lamar Odom and Larry Johnson.
1) Josh Jackson is a very good passer. However, he’s probably not a special passer. I’ve seen very little on the court to convince me that he’s like Lebron or Iguodola in that regard. The key here being that he isn’t all that good at breaking down athletic defenders. The numbers aren’t everything, but they don’t disagree. Josh Jackson is exceptional for a player who’s 6’7″ or 6’8″, but there’s a vast difference between Josh Jackson and Andre Iguodala, who is a special passer compared to almost any player. (If I get back to the Synergy Passing Stats, it’ll be relatively easy to demonstrate this latter assertion.)
2) Let’s forget that many of the players on this list, at the age of 20, were already succeeding in the NBA. Let’s focus on the fact that Josh Jackson, at the same age, is better at passing than players like Grant Hill, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Kevin Durant and Larry Johnson. (At least on paper. I’ll take 20 year old Paul Pierce or Grant Hill as passers over Josh Jackson any day.)
Here’s the thing, those guys were all elite at scoring. And they were elite at scoring versus match-ups that look very much like the ones they were to face in the NBA. It’s that scoring ability that allowed them to improve as passers as they made their way in the league. We can see this if we look at these players Field Goal Attempts per 40 minutes, their Free-Throw Attempts per 40 and their Field Goal Percentages.
I don’t have access to video that would allow us to break down the different ways these players score, but it’s pretty evident that most of of these players had much greater success than Josh Jackson while handling a much greater burden of the offense. The ones that didn’t? Grant Hill, Brandon Roy and Vince Carter. Well, they were all elite in terms of efficiency. And all of them demonstrated more ability versus athletic Wing types than Josh Jackson.
Why are we projecting Josh Jackson to be a great on-ball scorer when he has trouble separating from players of equal athleticism and great difficulty making contested jump shots? (Read this piece by Pete Zayas if you’re interested in a more nuanced perspective into some of Jackson’s potential deficits.)
Rebounds Per 40 (Per 36) and A Discussion About Shooting the Basketball
1) I’m not going to go through this table category-to-category like I’ve done with some of the others. If there’s great interest in that, let me know, and I’ll think about doing it at the end of the year. Especially if there’s great dissent over my opinion of Josh Jackson.
Here’s the thing, I like him. My first impression was that he was potentially special. And I’ve had a long difficult time coming off that impression. He doesn’t look great on defense, though he some strengths. I’m pretty sure he’s not great on offense. He’s definitely not a great defensive rebounder. His numbers are very strong, but not one of them is particularly noteworthy in the context of history, aside from perhaps his Free-Throw shooting, which is near historically awful.
2) We can see this lack of domination here specifically. Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Larry Johnson, Bonzi Wells, Lamar Odom, Josh Howard, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce, Bonzi Wells and Jae Crowder were all significantly better at around the same age. Or in some cases, when they were younger. I can only imagine how good Lebron James or Tracy McGrady would have been had they gone to college. How good Pierce might have been if he didn’t play next to Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard.
This is an area where the greatest Wings usually dominate. There are some exceptions, like Vince Carter (who played next to Jamison, Okulaja and N’Diaye) or Jimmy Butler (who also played a Power Position). However, it’s usually a place where the truly elite guys show themselves. Especially relative to height.
3) The best examples in Jackson’s favor are 85% Free Throw guys like Paul George and Gordon Hayward. That’s to say, not particularly good examples for Jackson. However good his in-game shooting has been as of late, Jackson’s level of success much more resembles that of a guy like Jeff Green or Richard Jefferson than Paul George or Gordon Hayward. As, at least with this grouping I’ve selected, the attempts per 40 seem to have at least as much (if not more) correlation to who shoots well from distance than the percentages.
Why is that? Probably because it separates out those with slow releases and those who aren’t as comfortable shooting under pressure. So the question is, do you think it’s wholly a coincidence that Josh Jackson places alongside Richard Jefferson, Nigel Hayes, Jeff Green and Matt Barnes? If not, why are we betting on Josh Jackson to have growth in his game, not just on offense but on the defensive side, that would be atypical in pretty much any prospect with this level of success?
Note: It’s not merely being suggested that Jackson will be a good defender, it’s being a suggested that he will be a significant plus on that side of the ball. I have even suggested it as a possibility earlier in the season. Has anyone seen real evidence of this kind of player, or rather are we talking about a player who sometimes creates defensive events? And if we’re talking about that type of player, how is Jackson making up for the fact that he projects as a +1 to +2.5 offensive player on a good team, if he hits realistic projections, rather than being the driver of offense?
There aren’t many legitimate two-way Wings in the game. Jackson could still be one of them. But in terms of upside, I don’t think we’re probably talking about an elite two-way guy, like Andre Iguodala or Kawhi Leonard (players who brought elite value on defense). Rather we’re talking about a player who might be as valuable as guys like Richard Jefferson, Josh Howard, Trevor Ariza or Jae Crowder. Somewhere in that continuum of players.
As a prospect that places Jackson roughly in the same ballpark as Miles Bridges and Jayson Tatum. When players like this turn out, we can expect them to be anywhere from the 3rd to the 10th best player in a draft class. It depends on the depth of the draft class.
Jefferson and Howard were anywhere between the 7th and 10th best players in their class behind players like Gilbert Arenas, Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Shane Battier, Tony Parker and Joe Johnson in the case of Jefferson and players like Lebron, Wade, Carmelo, Bosh, West, Korver. That places both amidst groups of players like Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, ZaZa Pachulia, Zach Randolph, Troy Murphy, Mehmet Okur.
However, Jae Crowder is probably the 4th or 5th best player in his class. Not because he’s necessarily better than Jefferson or Howard, but because his draft class simply happened to be less deep, with just Draymond Green, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard definitively above him. Different draft. Different players. Similar deal for Trevor Ariza.
One Complicating Factor In Grading Young Wing-Type Players
I’m no longer entirely sure if Josh Jackson’s best position going forward is on the Wing or at the Four. The complicating factor is that, given recent and mounting evidence, I have a bleaker view of Jackson’s defensive upside. I could say the same for Jayson Tatum and Miles Bridges. All have certain defensive strengths, while also leaving lots of room for improvement and wishful thinking. Beyond that, all are among the better bets to have long NBA careers.
Normally I would propose dropping these players in the draft order. Yes, they have a good chance to be very good, but like players also tend to be available on the open market. Al-Farouq Aminu, Trevor Ariza and Jae Crowder (who I would have graded higher coming out of Marquette than any of these Freshman) are good recent examples.
However, the NBA has recently gone crazy with respect to two types of players. One-Way Shooters with limited upside and Fringy Two-Way Wings of limited upside. We have to look no further than the trade deadline to see this fact.
Buddy Hield was the centerpiece of a deal for DeMarcus Cousins. Justin Anderson was the centerpiece of a deal for Nerlens Noel, a +4 BPM player for his career. (He’s also likely still improving.) These are not deals that would have happened five years ago, and they aren’t necessarily a sign of the league getting smarter. (Depending on how likely the Lakers are to acquire Chris Bosh and sign free agents this summer, the Nerlens Noel deal is up for debate.)
Let’s forget that the league is not full of rational actors. After all, the Kings traded away Nik Stauskas as throw-in in a deal before trading a Top 20 Player for a like prospect in Buddy Hield. There is no rational argument for these two moves in combination. How could the same team be so desperate to get rid of Nik Stauskas and little more than a year later, be so desperate to acquire Buddy Hield?
But they are not the only ones. We could also look to the 2016 draft. Virtually any team, including the 76ers, could have acquired Patrick McCaw at the cost of cash. If the Sixers valued Nerlens Noel at the cost of Justin Anderson and the two 2nd round draft picks, how could they not have valued Patrick McCaw at the cost of cash? Patrick McCaw is every bit as good a prospect as Anderson. I’d actually argue he was quite a bit better. In fact, if they were all in the same draft, there’s no way I rank either Hield or Anderson above McCaw. Even if I’m wrong in that, there’s little rational argument for there to be such a discrepancy in value.
What I’m saying is that certain prospects are very likely to be valued by the league going forward. Almost irregardless of how well they play, some team will be very interested in acquiring them.
So what types of players are likely to retain such trade value? Well, the kinds of players that look like Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, and Miles Bridges. Each is highly regarded by the league. A no doubt lottery pick in a supposedly deep draft. Each is a way better bet to succeed than Justin Anderson. (Anderson is actually the first player that came to mind when I saw Miles Bridges play, albeit a much stronger, more powerful version of the player.) Each is athletic and skilled in his own way.
Even if they don’t succeed, there will likely still be a market for these players. Think about that. How could that not come into play when ranking such players? Even if I think prospects like Zach Collins or De’Aaron Fox arguably have higher upsides. The answer is that it has to come into play, even in the case that Josh Jackson doesn’t show the elite defensive or offensive upside I thought he might have earlier in the season.