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Has game, will travel: Kansas’ Josh Jackson went from introvert to No. 1 recruit

Basketball has always been the one constant in Josh Jackson's life. As he enters Kansas, it has him on the brink of stardom.

It’s a looping algorithm encoded on hoop mixtapes: Josh Jackson slaloms upcourt and dunks. There are variations on the sequence -- he might begin it by scraping the ball off the rim or jumping a passing lane, or interrupt it by slipping the defense with a behind-the-back dribble or receiving a pass off the backboard before punctuating the highlight. But generally that’s how it went in high school for the top prep guard in the nation. Rivals editor Eric Bossi says Jackson, who will debut at Kansas in the fall, is the best open-court player he’s ever scouted.

But there’s something particularly resonant about Jackson, who Rivals put atop their 2016 high school basketball rankings, being unstoppable in transition. Yes, serious prep ballers tend to be itinerant, with the AAU circuit, international tournaments, and high-profile basketball camps filling their off-season schedules.

Jackson’s high school career, starting at his hometown Detroit Consortium and finishing at Prolific Prep (Calif.), was a whirlwind of its own: He played under a different coach every year. He moved across the country to captain a fledgling basketball academy in its inaugural season. He dealt with the sudden loss of a parent. At one point, Jackson thought about quitting basketball.

And yet, Jackson graduated high school with a haul of trophies and accolades that includes a state title, three gold medals, and the McDonald’s All-American Game MVP trophy under his belt. The one thing that’s remained consistent is the distance between Jackson and his basketball peers. On the court, he moves, and everyone else adjusts.

"Just being in this position is the most surprising thing to me," Jackson told SB Nation recently, with finals looming and his first practice as a Jayhawk only a few weeks away. The 6’8 shooting guard committed to KU in April after an intense recruiting battle. "Looking back as a kid, I watched players who were in my position before, and I just looked up to them. I never thought I’d be able to be where they are, or where they once were."


Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

For a kid so accustomed to a state of flux, Jackson is a remarkably placid 19-year-old, with a flat, earnest smile and two decades of wisdom running furrowed routes across his forehead. "When I first met Josh," says Consortium coach Tobias Tuomi, "I was really taken aback by his personality, and how kind and gentle he was."

His mom tells me he sleeps a lot, and his host parents -- Prolific is in Napa, some 2,000 miles away from home -- say he watches hella cartoons. (Phineas and Ferb is his favorite.) But to describe him just in terms of cool serenity wouldn’t be right, because some of the time it would be completely wrong.

"Off the court, he’s quiet, introverted," his AAU coach LaMonta Stone says, "but you put him on the court, then all of a sudden, something clicks." This is the combustible, devastating Jackson you see in the mixtapes. Between the lines, Jackson goes full phenom, deploying wanton athleticism with urgency and greed. His highlight reels are slasher films, full of merciless executions of layups and tomahawks on helpless defenders.

What gets left off those highlight reels is Jackson doing elite grunt work in the oddest of places -- drawing charges in AAU games, or locking down his man at a high school all-star game. "It’s just competition," Jackson says, trying to explain why balling sets him off. "I just wanna win, so, I don’t know -- the beast comes out." Jackson and-ones are a bucket and a glare; when he scores on you, you’ll hear about it.

Jackson being perpetually turnt on the court doesn’t just challenge his opponents -- it pushes his teammates and even his coach, too. "There are a lot of coaches out there that want to sign Kumbaya with their team," McKnight said. "I decided to go the other way with this group because of Josh’s personality." This year Jackson, as one of only three seniors on the Prolific roster, made developing the team’s underclassmen a personal mission.

Jackson would single out a different player at each practice to test his teammates’ toughness and bring out their competitive juice, according to McKnight. "I’m pretty vocal," Jackson admits, but "I’m always cheering my teammates on. Everybody on my team knows I don’t really care about scoring, or about being the star of the team. ... As long as we’re winning, I’ll always be happy."

But Jackson doesn’t just bark at people, he calls out directions. The chess nerd, sax player, and National Honor Society member prides himself, fittingly, on basketball intelligence. "I think I’m an okay player," Jackson says. He looks like he means it, too. But coming from a guy pegged by many as next year’s first overall draft pick, it still sounds ridiculous. "What separates me from everyone else is that I think the game a little more."

The knowledge alone isn’t all that separates Jackson from the pack. There’s also his court vision, athleticism, and defense, the latter of which McKnight touts as the best in a high school guard in the past twenty years. The total package adds up to a 102 out of 100 on the recruiting scale of 247 Sports, the highest grade the site has ever given a prospect.

"I just wanna win, so, I don’t know -- the beast comes out." -Josh Jackson

There’s also Jackson’s drive. Having led Detroit Consortium to a state title in his sophomore season, he probably could have coasted through two more years and wound up in the same spot he’s in now. But doing that would not be very Josh Jackson. Seeking a more rigorous challenge on the court and in the classroom, he left Detroit and enrolled in a Catholic boarding school in Napa so that he could play for Prolific Prep.

The cross-country switch was, as Jackson tells it, no big deal. "Really just my family, friends," he says, listing the pertinent negatives of his home away from home. "Couple places I like to eat, like White Castle. I miss White Castle." Jackson makes everything look so easy on the court, and carries himself so effortlessly off it, that it’s difficult to imagine a challenge he hasn’t dispatched with his signature aplomb. But before that junior season in California, as his ascent to stardom started to seem expected -- if not altogether ordained -- Jackson was at first shaken by its immense demands.

"I felt like basketball wasn’t fun for me anymore, and it just started to feel like more of a job," he said. Depressed and facing a crisis of commitment, he thought about quitting. But Jackson’s mom, Apples Jones, was never worried. "I just tried to remind him of his purpose, what he always wrote down in elementary school," Jones said. "He always wanted to be an NBA player. He always wanted to know how good he could be."

Treating basketball like a full-time job at Prolific helped Jackson find out. Jackson averaged an absurd 31.2 points, 17.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals in his junior year, cementing him atop national recruitment rankings. Any misgivings about his career path vanished at the first sniff of competition. "He competes against himself, every second, challenging the inner dog in him," says Philippe Doherty, who coached him that season. Jackson can't turn that attitude off -- it's how he lives, and how he balls.

At the McDonald’s game, Jackson thanked his mom for getting him past his doubts. "I just remembered to have fun," he says now. "As long as you’re having fun, you’ll love the game."

So, here’s this extremely well-adjusted bona fide Shuttlesworth who scores academic honors and is adored by everyone who meets him. For her part, Jones -- a former scholarship basketball player herself -- deflects any credit for how her son turned out, other than giving him space to spread his wings. When we first talked on the phone, she conferenced in a host of aunts, coaches, family friends, and even a high school administrator. They’re all part of Josh’s "village," she says. "It takes more than a parent to truly raise and invest in a kid. It’s a community." Josh, who moved in with a former classmate’s parents in Napa, wholeheartedly agrees.

Still, when Josh Jackson tells me his mom’s always been there for him, it’s less a cliché than statement of fact. For all his interminable wandering, there simply aren’t a lot of people he can say that about. Two of the people in Jackson’s village died suddenly during his high school wandering. His freshman year at Consortium, his basketball coach Al Anderson died after a game of an apparent heart attack. Anderson had been a father figure to Jackson, who was devastated by the loss.

Less than two years later while he was in California, he lost his dad. "Having him pass away was real tough on me," Jackson said. His mom says CJ Jones was responsible for her son’s resilience, wrought during countless physical one-on-one battles in the backyard. "I try to remember things that he’s taught me, and that if I keep doing what I’m doing and working hard, that I’ll continue to make him proud. He’s never really gone if I always have him in my heart."

Jackson again crossed into unfamiliar territory as he weighed his college decision, but found that his village widened to include a heady crowd of NBA veterans including Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green. After narrowing it down to Michigan State, Arizona, and Kansas, Jackson finally announced his decision on April 12. It didn’t hurt that the basketball dorm at KU has its own hardcourt, and Kansas will also set him up with an internship in sports broadcasting.

Though he was weighing scholarship offers from Kansas and Michigan State -- Wiggins’ and Green’s respective alma maters -- the pros weren’t reaching out to recruit him. What they offered instead were rules of the road. "One, Draymond gave me, was to keep my circle small," Jackson said. "Can’t have too many people around, can’t trust too many people.

"And Andrew told me that I will always have days where I question myself, like ‘Can I do this? Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do this?’ But he told me in those times, making sure I work hard is important."

If everything goes according to plan, Jackson’s only 12 months away from one last career-altering jaunt -- the walk across the Barclays Center stage to dap up Adam Silver at the 2017 NBA Draft. Between now and then Jackson knows he’ll have to get stronger and work on his jumper. He’s looking forward to some stability in Lawrence, for however long it lasts.

"I’ll get better once I develop a little bit, get a little stronger, work on my shot a little more," he said. "In the next year, I’ll have more time to work on my game. I think I’ll make a huge jump and be way better than people have ever seen me." Josh Jackson has already been seen as the best talent at one level. His journey to the next is just beginning.