CHICAGO — The most valuable big man in the 2018 NBA Draft averaged fewer than 11 points and six rebounds per game. He played just 54 percent of his team’s available minutes all year. He wasn’t on the floor in crunch time as their season ended in a shocking early-round upset in the NCAA tournament.
If that sounds strange to you, it also sounded strange to Jaren Jackson Jr. He knew he was capable of a bigger role and better numbers at Michigan State. It ate away at him, so much so that he admitted he was leaning towards returning for his sophomore season.
As the rest of players projected at the top of the draft officially declared, Jackson remained radio silent for weeks. He leaned on his family and friends, including MSU forward Miles Bridges, who made made an unpopular decision last year to return to school despite being projected as a 2017 lottery pick.
“He was asking me every day, ‘What should I do?’” Bridges recalled at the NBA draft combine. “I was l like, ‘Do what’s best for you.’”
After getting more information from NBA personnel, Jackson finally realized the NBA was the best place for him. Pro scouts didn’t need to see him post the same gaudy stats as contemporaries Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III. Instead, the NBA — and especially the Memphis Grizzlies, who took him No. 4 overall — saw Jackson as a young big man with a skill set that fit perfectly into how NBA basketball is played today: small and fast, with perimeter players making lumbering bigs extinct.
It didn’t matter that Tom Izzo made Jackson ride the bench in the final minutes of MSU’s Round of 32 loss to Syracuse. It didn’t matter that his per-game stats were pedestrian, especially compared to the 20-10 lines put up by Bagley and Ayton. In the modern NBA, Jackson’s skill set is in demand.
Jackson can block shots. He hit nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers and 80 percent of his free throws. He showed a rare ability to guard on the perimeter for player with his size. He also flashed some ball skills that could take his offensive game to the next level. No big man in the draft has a game this complete, and that includes Ayton, the potential No. 1 pick who has major issues defensively.
Jackson might have wanted another year of college basketball for a time, but he didn’t need it. There’s only one place for a player with his gifts to grow. That’s the NBA.
Jaren Jackson Sr. took a radically different path to the NBA. He went undrafted out of Georgetown in 1989 only to become a quintessential journeyman, playing for nine teams in 13 years as a 6’4 shooting specialist. It wasn’t until he arrived in San Antonio in 1997 as a backup to Sean Elliott and Mario Elie that he found a home. The Spurs won the title in his second season. Three months later, his wife gave birth to a baby boy.
Jaren Jr. was never going to be the same player as his father. His rapid growth rate ensured that. But even though his son had big man height, the elder Jackson passed onto him the value of a jump shot at an early age. It was the one thing that kept Jackson Sr. in the NBA for more than a decade.
“My dad always had me shoot in the gym whether that was my role on the team I was playing on or not,” Jackson Jr. said at the combine. “I always made sure I stayed consistent in improving that and keep shooting with my pops.”
This is how a modern big man is born. It manifests itself in a player who shot 40 percent from three as a freshman. Yet so many of the other things Jackson brings to the table simply can’t be taught.
It starts with size: at the combine, he measured at 6’11.25, 236 pounds with a 7’5.25 wingspan. That made him the third-longest player in the draft. Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, with a 7’10 wingspan, gets all of the attention when it comes to rim protection in this draft. Jackson actually blocked a higher percentage of shots with him in the game — he swatted a shot on 14.3 percent of Michigan State’s possessions, which ranked No. 4 in America.
Athletically, Jackson is just scratching the surface. He’s able to get in a stance and slide his feet better than any big man in this class. He’s the perfect defender for this switch-heavy era, quick enough to stay with guards, but long enough to erase the shot if it goes up.
Jackson is also just realizing his potential as a ball handler. How many near 7-footers can take you off the dribble like this? Keep in mind that Jackson made this move with his weak hand.
Put it all together and you have a big man who can shoot, block shots, guard on the perimeter and maybe even handle the ball a bit. Jackson is aware the league is trending in his favor.
“You can see in the conference finals,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of spacing. You got to be able to handle the ball. You can’t be a liability on defense or offense. Just me being out there, I feel like I can space the floor and help get my teammates involved.”
While Jackson’s per-game stats were unremarkable, his adjusted numbers were historic.
There have been 10 players since 1992 to post a block rate greater than 14 percent and a true shooting percentage better than 63 percent. Those other nine players combined to hit two three-pointers. Jackson hit 38 by himself as a freshman at MSU, making them at a 40-percent clip. Over the same period, only five players have ever made at least 35 threes and blocked more than 100 shots. Jackson is on that list, as well.
He did all this while playing out of position all season. Jackson spent 85 percent of his minutes at power forward, playing next to less skilled players in Izzo’s two big lineups. That shouldn’t be the case in the NBA, which should open up his game. He already has the length to matchup with any NBA big man, and he’s quicker than most of them, too.
Yes, Jackson was too passive at times. He lacks a “next play” mentality, often outwardly appearing too hard on the refs or himself when something doesn’t go his way. He needs to learn how to defend without fouling, too, which was one reason his playing time at MSU was so limited.
Give him time. Jackson won’t turn 19 years old until September, making him young for even his class. He already does so many things so well in comparison to his peers. Bagley and Ayton can’t defend like him. Bamba can’t shoot or handle this well.
Jackson is still coming to grips with how good he can be. The same player who thought about returning to school feels like a lock to go in the top four of this draft. He’s growing into his body and skill set at the same time, already showing the outlines of a big man who you can do anything he wants on the floor.
There are more explosive centers in this draft who will enter the league with bigger profiles and better numbers. None of them fit the league quite as well as Jaren Jackson Jr. The Memphis Grizzlies are now the beneficiary.