In advance of the 2018 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops will be breaking down prospects, both from the college ranks and internationally, with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks will be evaluating in the coming days. More than 50 prospects will be profiled in this space and, in the end, the goal is to inform Hawks fans prior to June 21, when the Hawks are scheduled to make four selections with the first 34 picks.
Today’s breakdown glances at Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr.
The youngest player among the top prospects in this year’s NBA Draft, Jaren Jackson Jr. might just represent the long-term future of his position. “3-and-D” is the most popular term in the league right now as teams look for perimeter players who can hit shots and lock down on defense. It’s not a term we hear a lot about traditional, rim-protecting big men because traditional, rim-protecting big men have never been able to shoot from outside. The past few years have changed that mentality significantly, with players like Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Myles Turner able to step out and shoot from outside in addition to their defensive duties, but the pure 3-and-D-ness of those guys is still in question. Embiid and Porzingis are more post threat than shooter and Turner still hasn’t quite figured out how to extend his range to the three-point line on a consistent basis. Those guys are good on switches for their position but aren’t phenomenal at it. Jackson looks to be all of those things: the rim-protecting big man who can step out and guard all five positions with ease while spacing the floor offensively with a strong three-point shot and ability to play in pick-and-pop situations.
The defensive positives with Jackson are tantalizing. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do on that end of the floor—he can truly guard 1-5 and protects the rim at a high level, whether in traditional drop coverage in pick-and-roll or as a weak-side shot blocker. Standing 6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan, he has tremendous instincts as a shot blocker in help positions:
Jackson led D-I in blocks per 40 minutes during his freshman year due in part to plays like those in the above clips. For the most part, players at his age have trouble recognizing situations and reacting quickly enough to make a different—Jackson has no such issues in help defense. Throughout his year at Michigan State, he consistently made plays from everywhere on the floor, often taking a full two steps away from his mark to meet a player at the rim, recognizing that his teammate was beaten before the offensive player had even truly turned the corner.
His athleticism extends to his switchability, which is easily the best among players at the top of this draft class. Jackson has absolutely no trouble switching across every position on the floor, staying in front of his man, and using his length to contest jumpers or shots at the rim.
Barring catastrophic injury that saps his lateral athleticism, there’s very few scenarios under which Jackson fails as a defensive prospect. There’s simply too much going for him athletically and mentally for him to be a negative on that end of the floor. That said, he’s not the perfect defensive player—he struggles with defensive rebounding due to his slim build and doesn’t have the most vertical explosion or quickness with multiple jumps to go up and get rebounds over opponents. Both are things he can work on; he won’t turn 19 until mid-September, so there’s still plenty of growth left for him as he gets into NBA training and weight rooms, but it’s still a concern. Fouls are also a problem. He can get caught out of his stance and be forced to foul as his guy drives past him:
He also commits too many fouls on pump-fakes and loses defensive rebounding position when he chases blocks. Those things can be fixed with development, because, and I cannot stress this enough, he’s only 18 years old.
Offensively, Jackson’s main draw is his three-point shot, which he hit at nearly 40 percent at Michigan State on a healthy number of attempts. College free throw shooting has a strong correlation with NBA three-point shooting and Jackson passes that test with flying colors as well, hitting 80 percent of his 133 attempts during his freshman year. His mechanics are awkward and if he were playing any other position, then teams would be worried about how he brings the ball so far in front of him to shoot, but at the center position, it won’t matter nearly as much.
Throughout the league, we see centers have all sorts of funky shooting techniques, but if the ball goes in, coaches often don’t try to change anything about it. In general, nobody is more open from behind the three-point line than centers, whose counterparts are often charged with protecting the rim ahead of protecting the three-point line.
However, there are significant questions about Jackson’s offensive game outside of the three-point shot. While there’s very little chance that he fails as a defensive prospect, there is absolutely a path for him to be a below-average offensive player. The three-point shot is the key—if he hits it early and often in his career, then everything else will open up for him. He really can only drive to his stronger left hand at this point, which will become a problem if defenders are closing out short because they don’t respect his three-point shot. He’s not a good passer or ball handler, which was more of a problem at the collegiate level, where he played the majority of his minutes at power forward. He shouldn’t be asked to do a lot of creation at the NBA level, but not bringing that piece of value to the table limits his offensive upside.
The combination of his out-front shot release and his lack of post game means that teams are going to switch on him without trepidation. Smaller players won’t have many issues defending him since he won’t be as much a threat to shoot over the top or hurt them in the post, which will be another factor that constrains his offensive game. For this reason, it will be important that he plays with a pick-and-roll guard who can attack switches as much as possible. Jackson has strong pick-and-pop footwork and if he gets out there with a point guard who can really attack and create for him in those situations, he’ll be a strong threat on those plays.
Despite his offensive questions, Jackson is one of the top prospects in this draft. His defensive talent will translate immediately to an NBA that is as thirsty as ever for exactly what he brings to the table on that end. As long as he’s at least an average three-point shooter for his position, he’ll be a long-term starter for any team that picks him at the top of the draft. Throw in the fact that he’s the youngest among the top guys this year and his development, both physically and mentally, makes him my top American prospect and only behind Luka Doncic on my board.