For the better part of three months, the majority of the 2017 NBA draft discussion has been about point guards: whether Washington’s Markelle Fultz or UCLA’s Lonzo Ball has bigger star potential, or whether Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox is actually better than Ball, or whether N.C. State’s Dennis Smith or French import Frank Ntilikina is a steal at the back end of the lottery.
But after the seismic trade that was agreed upon over the weekend, with the Celtics sending the No. 1 pick to the 76ers in exchange for the No. 3 pick and another future first-rounder, this draft could be as much about Kansas wing Josh Jackson as it is those floor generals. Boston’s move indicates that it believes Fultz isn’t far and away the best prospect in the draft, and that there might be someone of similar value available at No. 3. That guy is likely to be either Jackson or Duke small forward Jayson Tatum, and while Tatum is the more accomplished scorer, there are reasons why taking Jackson could make Danny Ainge’s trade-down gamble look shrewd.
• Of the consensus top-four prospects (Fultz, Ball, Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum), Jackson is the most adaptable to a roster that already has a ball-dominant guard. Fultz’s value gets maximized if he’s a team’s primary scorer and 1A or 1B ballhandler. Ball needs to pilot a freewheeling offense that preferably isn’t too pick-and-roll oriented. Tatum is conditioned to be a high-usage, isolation-heavy scorer, sometimes at the expense of his team’s offensive flow. In Jackson’s two biggest stages to date—his one-and-done season at Kansas and his gold medal run with Team USA in the 2015 FIBA U19s—he’s found ways to be an elite complementary player. He contributes significantly to winning without needing to take over an offense, which is an uncommon trait for an elite prospect.
In his freshman year at Kansas, Jackson didn’t disrupt an existing hierarchy where senior point guard Frank Mason was the team’s leader. Jackson slid in on the wing and as a small-ball four, served as a effective complementary playmaker to Mason and combo guard Devonte’ Graham, took shots at a volume similar to Mason’s, and had the team’s best all-around defensive stats. With the U.S. U19 squad in Greece, Jackson shined as a defender and offensive complement to Harry Giles (who was in peak form prior to his second knee injury), Tatum and Jalen Brunson. The fact that Jackson didn’t take over either of those teams could be seen as evidence he’s not a future star in the NBA, but I see it more as evidence he understands how to make an impact without being the guy.
• In an era of heightened awareness of the value of ball movement, Jackson is the best playmaker of any of the wing prospects in this draft. He’s also one of the best ball-moving small forward prospects of the entire analytics era of college hoops (2002-present). When Jackson’s advanced passing numbers—pace-adjusted assists per 40 minutes and percentage of teammates field goals assisted upon—are placed in the context of every one-and-done, top-five-pick wing during this era, only LSU’s Ben Simmons is a better distributor. And Simmons is more of a giant point guard than a true wing, anyway:
I won’t inundate you with GIFs, but here’s an example of something Jackson can do as a playmaker that’s out of the LeBron/Simmons mold—grab a defensive rebound, initiate a fastbreak without need for an outlet pass, and turn a situation that doesn’t have a numbers advantage into an easy bucket:
Jackson’s explosiveness off the bounce, combined with his court vision and unselfishness, make him an attractive cog in an offense, and although some of his skills overlap with a young wing the Celtics already have—Jaylen Brown, whom they selected out of Cal in 2016—I think Jackson represents an upgrade on both ends of the floor.
• Jackson’s biggest selling point is his two-way value, as he has the physical tools to be an elite wing defender who can guard 3–4 positions, and his advanced defensive numbers at Kansas were promising. He falls into a rare category of college player I call the Super-Producers: Guys who were relatively efficient and non-sticky on offense (with Offensive Ratings of at least 110, usage of at least 22%, and assist rates of at least 15%) but also made significant contributions on D (with defensive-rebounding rates of at least 15%, and steal and block rates of at least 3%).
According to Sports-Reference.com data that dates back to the 2010–11 season, only six major-conference players have hit all those benchmarks, and Jackson is the lone freshman who’s pulled it off:
That list puts Jackson in some good company, especially with Georgetown’s Otto Porter, another small forward who went in the top five of the draft at 19 years old. Porter has carved out a nice complementary role with the Wizards, and Jackson offers similar college production in a better athletic package; I don’t think it’s a stretch to hope that he could be a rich man’s version of Porter.
• If Celtics do opt for Tatum instead of Jackson, they won’t have to reach for justification. As much as Jackson was a killer going downhill out of pick-and-pops against overmatched college fours …
… Tatum is the more efficient isolation player by a wide margin, and is more likely to become a volume scorer in the NBA. If Boston thinks an infusion of wing scoring is what it needs most in order to take heat off of Isaiah Thomas, then Tatum makes sense. Tatum also has no known off-court red flags, whereas Jackson has a glaring one: He was involved in a troubling incident in December outside a Lawrence bar, where he kicked out a woman’s taillight and dented her car door after she was involved in an argument with his KU teammate LaGerald Vick.
If you believe that incident is indicative of larger personality flaws or anger issues, then it makes sense to go for the higher-character option. But if you’re convinced that Jackson can handle himself as an adult in the NBA, and you’re looking for all-around contribution on the wing—as opposed to primarily scoring—he’s a hard prospect to pass up at No. 3.