"Situational Analysis" is a series of articles that seeks to examine the circumstances that most often influence an NBA prospect’s success. Each player will be scored on a scale from 1-10 in four different categories: NBA-specific skill(s), fatal flaw(s), collegiate/overseas/pre-NBA environment, and ideal NBA ecosystem.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is an 18-year-old forward from Columbia, Missouri, who averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Michigan State Spartans. Jackson declared for the NBA Draft on April 2 and is expected to be selected in the top-five. NBADraft.net currently has him projected to go No. 4.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the physical manifestation of every NBA personnel department’s wish list for "a modern center." He checks nearly every box.
Length: Check. Jackson stands a hair over 6-foot-10, but his 7-4 wingspan and 9-1 standing reach give him ideal measurables.
Mobility: Check. Jackson can dart out to perimeter shooters and recover into the paint like few in his draft class. His nimble quickness makes him seem a bit more explosive than he is, as he can effortlessly switch on defense and sprint end-to-end in transition.
Rim protection: Big check. Jackson blocked 106 shots in 764 minutes played for Michigan State. By comparison, Mo Bamba blocked 111 shots in 906 minutes. Jackson put up these rim-protection numbers in a system that required him to play out of position at the 4, much like Deandre Ayton at Arizona, yet Jackson still had a dramatic defensive impact each time he stepped on the floor. Ayton’s impact, however, was…less so.
Shooting: Check. Jackson put up 96 3-pointers this season and hit 38 of them — 39.6 percent. That percentage was even higher before an end-of-season cold streak that saw him go 3-17 from 3 in his last seven games. He can finish at the rim with either hand and shows a knack for diverse set of finishes beyond dunks. His strong foul shooting (nearly 80 percent) shows his shooting foundation is likely solid.
Youth: Check. Jackson doesn’t turn 19 until Sept. 15, which makes him one of the draft’s youngest prospects. His upside is almost immeasurable, given his clearly translatable NBA skillset. On a scale from 1 (Yi Jianlian) to 10 (Anthony Davis), Jackson’s well-rounded scouting report rates at an 8.5.
Jackson seems like a delightful young man, but that might be the problem. Jackson tends to play basketball like a nice guy.
It’s not that anyone expects a player who can’t legally buy a beer until 2021 to be a cold-blooded basketball killer, but a player with Jackson’s obvious talent should play with more assertiveness.
He holds the ball high after rebounds, but if he tries to dribble the ball in traffic, he is a bit of a turnover machine. He has yet to display much playmaking ability or passing vision. Some scouts worry about the release point on his shot – it’s lower than one would expect from someone Jackson’s size, and its trajectory is flatter with less spin than one would prefer.
While Jackson’s lottery-level ability would appear in flashes during his freshman season, rarely would he put it together for a full game. Part of this was due to opportunity (which will cover in the next section), but part of it was perhaps due to Jackson’s reticence to unleash hell on his opponents. He tallied double-digit shot attempts in only six games.
Teams in Jackson’s range will be expecting an All-Star-level talent. Nobody makes an All-Star team by playing like a nice guy.
On a scale from 1 (Jahlil Okafor) to 10 (Draymond Green), Jackson’s intensity rests at a 5.
I suppose this will depend entirely on your outlook toward the utility of college basketball. Should a lottery-level talent seek a situation that best spotlights his NBA attributes, or should he use that unpaid internship to learn from an elite coach and veteran teammates who know what they’re doing?
Given his age and demeanor, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad was never going to provide Trae Young-level opportunity for Jackson. There was simply too much upper-class experience already on hand. Between fellow lottery talent Miles Bridges, forward Nick Ward, and an array of athletic guards, Izzo had a wide variety of players deserving minutes. "Clear out and let Jackson cook" was not an option in Izzo’s playbook.
Instead, Jackson learned what it takes to play high-level basketball from a Hall of Fame coach and terrific batch of teammates. Even though his usage rate wasn’t what one would expect from a top-10 pick, he likely absorbed a solid set of work habits and skill development.
The Spartans don’t have a spotless track record of NBA player development, but nobody becomes a worse basketball player under Izzo. A player with Jackson’s combination of youth and potential can only benefit from extended time under Izzo’s tutelage.
On a scale from 1 (Ben Simmons at LSU) to 10 (Gordon Hayward going from a lightly recruited 3-star guard to nearly hitting the greatest shot in college basketball history as a sophomore playing under Brad Stevens), Jackson’s college career rates at a 5 for his stat sheet, but an 8.5 for his future development.
Ideal NBA Ecosystem
Jackson needs a patient NBA franchise willing to take the long view on his career arc.
He will be one of — if not the — youngest players to earn minutes next season. He will make mistakes. He’ll get lost on pick and roll coverage. He’ll blow some assignments. It’s part of the process.
If Jackson is forced to play for an old-school, irritable coach who can’t stand rookies who make mistakes, frustration will set in early. If he ends up with an overwhelmed, underqualified head coach (or series of coaches) who can’t teach or communicate, Jackson could find himself on the Marquese Chriss track.
Dallas and Rick Carlisle could provide a suitable infrastructure for Jackson’s development, as could Memphis and Marc Gasol. His skills seem to overlap with Atlanta’s John Collins a bit too closely, and Orlando is, well, Orlando.
On a scale from 1 (Darko Milicic and Larry Brown) to 10 (Brett Brown and Joel Embiid), Jackson’s situational dependence is a 7. He needs a coaching/ownership situation with a three-year plan, not a three-week plan.