The evolution of basketball is happening in real time during the 2017 NBA Finals. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are logging minutes at center, there’s shooting at nearly every spot on the floor, and pace is being pushed to its logical extreme.
The game is getting smaller, faster, and more skilled with each passing year. The teams at the top of the 2017 NBA draft better be taking notice. To survive in these Finals, you need long, versatile athletes who can switch every screen on defense. You need unselfish players with high basketball IQs who always make the right play on offense. Even having one or two non-shooters on the floor will compromise the entire balance of any given lineup.
It’s only natural to think about the incoming draft class through the lens of the Finals. Who in this draft will actually be able to stay on the floor against Golden State or Cleveland? Markelle Fultz is an easy answer, but there’s one name I keep thinking about: Kansas freshman Josh Jackson.
Jackson has the defensive versatility that’s become a prerequisite in today’s game
It isn’t enough to be a one-position defender anymore. The ideal defensive player for the modern game needs to be able to check traditional point guards through oversized wings. Jackson is uniquely equipped to handle the job.
First and foremost, Jackson is a great athlete. That manifests on offense with highlight reel dunks, but it’s just as functional defensively. He has excellent lateral quickness that lets him slide his feet with a wide range of offensive players. Watch him stay in front of Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu (an intriguing draft sleeper) and force an ugly shot:
It’s evident that Jackson takes pride in his defense. He plays with a rare competitive fire and doesn’t take possessions off. Even if his wingspan is a little shorter than you’d like (a shade under 6’10, per DraftExpress), he’ll make up for it by getting a loose ball, taking a charge, or intercepting a pass to quickly turn defense into offense.
Ultimately, Jackson’s best attribute as a defender is his versatility. He should be able to switch screens and guard up to four positions. You can make an argument that Jonathan Isaac has the highest defensive upside of any player in this draft, but Jackson is the safest bet to thrive on that end from the moment he enters the league.
Jackson is an unselfish and gifted passer
It was immediately apparent early in his college career that Jackson was an advanced playmaker. I made this highlight reel of his best passes on Nov. 30 — only seven games into his lone season at Kansas:
Jackson is an unselfish player with a great feel for the game. He wasn’t worried about trying to boost his draft stock by scoring a lot points. He only wanted to help Kansas win as many games as possible.
Watch the way he’s able to beat his man without a pick, suck in multiple defenders once he gets in the paint, and make a crafty bounce pass to teammate Carlton Bragg for a layup:
My favorite Jackson pass all season didn’t even count for an assist:
This highlight is remarkable. Beautiful full court pass, then another great pass, followed by a rim-rocking slam! pic.twitter.com/vCyHWFoJSc— Jayhawk Video (@JayhawkVideo) February 11, 2017
Jackson’s ability as a creator is what separates him from the draft’s other top wing, Duke’s Jayson Tatum. Just about the only question in Jackson’s skill set is his jump shot., but there are reasons to be optimistic about that, too.
Jackson won’t be a total non-shooter
Jackson finished the year as a 37.8 percent three-point shooter ... but only a 56.6 percent free throw shooter. Shooting will never be the foundation of his game, but I think he’ll at least be capable in catch-and-shoot situations from NBA range.
Jackson closed the year on a tear, knocking down 48.1 percent of his threes (on 3.1 attempts per game) over the final 18 games. He was shooting the ball with a lot of confidence by the end of the season. Here’s a triple over a closeout by Jarrett Allen — another first-round pick in this draft who boasts elite length with a 7’5 wingspan:
If he continues this progress, Jackson should at least become a league-average shooter from deep. As long as that’s the case, he’ll force defenses to respect his shot and be able to use his speed to attack closeouts.
Two plays in a game against Baylor show how effective he can be like that:
Jackson does so many little things well that it adds up to what should be a really good player. As the Warriors are proving, an ability to guard multiple positions on defense and make the right reads on offense is invaluable. In that sense, Jackson resembles a junior version of Golden State veteran Andre Iguodala — all the way down to the poor free throw percentage.
There are better isolation scorers in this draft. There are better pure shooters. But when it comes to competing on every play and showing a versatile skill set on both ends of the floor, Jackson has a lot to offer. You only need to watch the NBA Finals to notice that.