There's a certain "circle-of-life" vibe happening at USA Basketball junior minicamp on Sunday morning in Colorado Springs. It's the rare setting where 18-year-olds are considered wise and every rim-rattling dunk humbles a younger five-star recruit. The way Josh Jackson sees it, dominating the sophomores and juniors in practice simply amounts to teaching life lessons.
The camp brings the best 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center every fall with the goal of keeping the country's top players invested in the program through competition. This makes Jackson, a senior at California's Prolific Prep, an elder statesman among the group. The 18-year-old has already captured three gold medals, including one this summer playing in a U-19 tournament against competition that was primarily a year older.
Jackson isn't taking any mercy against the younger campers on Sunday. He played up to the competition at U-19s and he's not playing down to the younger kids now. On one possession, he effortlessly rips through the defense off a screen for a one-handed dunk. On another, he's draining a three from the left wing and celebrates by stabbing the side of his head with three fingers. When he whips up the court again with the ball in transition, all sophomore Javonte Smart can do is wrap him up.
Jackson doesn't appreciate the gesture, and he makes sure the 16-year-old knows it. Jackson takes a step toward him, stares him down and whispers something in his ear. When it's over, Jackson continues to wreck every facet of the day's practice.
The seniors are supposed to be the leaders at an event like this, and Jackson is figuring out his own way to do it after watching players like Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre and Jaylen Brown take control before him. For Jackson, leadership starts with intensity. He hasn't lost a game in three years with USA Basketball, and he's showing everyone else that only happens by never taking a possession off.
The camp is loaded is with future NBA talent, but it's immediately evident no one plays harder on both ends of the floor than Jackson. He has nothing to prove here as a consensus top-three recruit in the loaded class of 2016, but he's still aggressive and unrelenting on every possession. His inability to turn off that passion is what makes him special.
"I think it's something that's in you," said Miles Simon, a former national champion during his playing days at Arizona and now assistant coach at the camp. "That's something that was in him probably at 10 years old and will be in him when he's 35. He's just a high-level competitor that likes to win, that likes to prove himself and try to be the best player every time he's on the floor. That's a tremendous asset to have that can take you a long way."
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There are scouts who believe the talent at the top of the class of 2016 is the strongest of any recruiting class to come through the pipeline in recent years. Jackson is considered the No. 1 player in that group by Rivals, and he's never ranked lower than No. 3 on any other major service. Jerry Meyer of 247 Sports, who also has Jackson No. 1, has called him the best shooting guard prospect he's covered in his 11 years in the industry.
It's easy to see what makes Jackson such a great prospect. He already has NBA size for a wing at 6'8 and 205 pounds. He's a gifted and willing passer, an incredible defender and as athletic as any player in the country. It makes you wonder: What can he possibly get out of another year of high school basketball?
"I kind of feel like I could compete on a college level right now, but I don't think I would be as good as I could be with another year of development," Jackson said. "I'm definitely happy to have another year to develop my body and work on my weaknesses."
It's true that Jackson still needs to improve his shooting and ball handling, but few doubt he could be the star of a college team tomorrow even before he begins his senior season of high school. Part of that is because he's a little older than most of his class (Jackson will turn 19 before fellow top prospect Jayson Tatum turns 18, for example), and part of it is because it's already obvious his talents will translate to the highest levels of the game.
Jackson is in California for his second year at Prolific Prep after transferring from Detroit following his sophomore season. It's been a whirlwind summer that saw him compete all over the world: He went to New Orleans, Louisville and New York on the Under Armour circuit before jetting to Greece for the U-19 tournament, then came to Atlanta for the UAA Finals a week later. His late-summer schedule included stops in Las Vegas for Fab48 and New York City again for Elite 24 before hitting Colorado Springs.
It's a punishing schedule even for a teenager, and Jackson's high school season isn't going to offer much relief while playing a national schedule.
"I feel like I'm playing AAU year round now," Jackson said on his move from Detroit to Prolific Prep. "That schedule is really taxing on us. Me personally, I played a lot of basketball this summer. But when I had time off to relax and rest my body, I took that time off. I think that's what really helped me."
Jackson said his biggest goal for his senior year is to finally figure out where he wants to go to college -- a route he said he's 100-percent committed to despite the allure of paychecks overseas. Arizona, Michigan State and Kansas seem to be on him the hardest at this point, and he said he plans on making two official visits later this month. He just doesn't know to where yet.
"There was a lot going on this summer," Jackson said. "I didn't really have too much time to sit down and really think about this whole process and where I really wanna go.
"I just want to go to a place where there's a great coaching staff and I'm around people I can trust. People that are gonna push me to make me a great player and to be around some teammates that can also play the game of basketball."
In all likelihood, Jackson's stay in college will be short. He's already drawing comparisons to Andrew Wiggins for his defensive ability and the way he makes teams pay in transition. DraftExpress has him at No. 4 in their initial 2017 NBA mock draft.
"I'm really high on him," said Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, who was in Colorado watching the camp. "He's got great size, he's a freak athlete, he's a tremendous defender. He's still got some work to do in terms of rounding out his game, his ball handling and his shooting. But he shows a lot of flashes in a lot of different areas and he's a really competitive guy, so I think he's a really good prospect."
Jackson said USA Basketball is always a humbling experience for him, even though he's made the team every time he's tried out. The level of competition is just that high.
No one is getting cut this weekend, but seniors like Jackson are there to set the standard for everyone else to try to measure up to. If the first-time campers didn't understand the passion and and effort level USA Basketball thrives on, they do now. With Josh Jackson around, there's simply no time to slack off.