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  • Jaren Jackson Jr. Is the Draft Class’ Most Complete Big Man Prospect

Jaren Jackson Jr. Is the Draft Class’ Most Complete Big Man Prospect

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
A successful season at Michigan State has led Jaren Jackson Jr. to be among the elite prospects that this draft class has to offer. What could he bring to the Knicks and a certain Latvian big man?

Michigan State product Jaren Jackson Jr. is the best two-way player in this draft. Just take a look at his first ever collegiate bucket to get a taste of how game changing this man’s length and athleticism can be:

It might be wishful thinking to believe the Knicks will have a shot at Jackson Jr., a 6-foot-11 big man, but there always seems to be one of those elite talents who falls a little lower than he should go. Last year it was Donovan Mitchell. Another name that stands out is Myles Turner at the 2015 NBA Draft. Traditional thinking has the draft with three top tiers right now:

  1. DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III
  2. Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr., Michael Porter Jr.
  3. Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter Jr.

Should the Knicks get some luck with the lottery balls, or should a few teams be really high on those third tier guys, maybe he falls into New York’s lap.

And if the Knicks do end up getting lucky, they’d be looking at a potentially transformative 3-and-D big man prototype to pair with an already generational big man in KP.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jackson Jr. is only 18 years old and played just 22 minutes a game (side note: I don’t understand why any talented freshman would want to play under Tom Izzo).

His counting stats in limited minutes and his feel for the game make him jump out as a player who can make a huge impact at the next level on both ends of the floor. He shoots almost 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line, and put up a remarkable 20 points, 11 boards, and 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes (via Sports-Reference). He also had a net rating of +34.2 during his time at Michigan State. He fits the mold of a long, mobile big man who can spread the floor and block shots, as well as switch onto smaller guys and hold his own.

Although Per 36 or Per 40 minutes stats may be inherently flawed as players can play more energetically in short bursts, Jackson’s numbers are still very encouraging. He’s a little bit raw and unpolished, but his footwork on both ends is great, and the Knicks would be incredibly lucky to nab the most complete prospect in this year’s pack of big men.


Defense

Some talking head on NBA Twitter one time said that there are two tenets of great defense. The first is being fundamentally sound and the second is being disruptive. A player who displays both traits is special. Kawhi Leonard is both. Draymond Green is both. Rudy Gobert is both. Jaren Jackson Jr. is both, albeit at a lower level of competition.

Watching JJJ’s defensive highlight reels has me salivating at the prospect of him playing next to Porzingis long-term. And watching full games, his feel for the game is well beyond his 18 years. Jackson’s combination of size, speed, mobility, and rim protection look absolutely lethal. His strengths perfectly complement KP’s defensive weaknesses, namely Porzingis’ struggles to defend quicker bigs in space.

Where KP struggled to stay with stretch 4’s on the perimeter, Jackson has the lateral quickness and agility to stay in front of his man. In college, he played over 80 percent of his minutes at the 4 and was often matched up against smaller, quicker guys. That lateral quickness and his length with a 7’4″ wingspan allow Jackson to cover a lot of space on the floor.

He closes out hard around the perimeter, but not hard enough that he can’t recover on a player with a good pump fake. Off-ball, he covers strong-side action well and is able to hop back to his man on the weak side:

He can be a factor both on the perimeter and on the inside. He chases guys around screens and can catch up to block a cutter from behind:

In addition to his lateral agility, his phenomenal footwork allows him to stay in front of bigs and wings. He sort of just swallows up driving players. At 240 pounds with a 9’1″ standing reach, he’s strong enough to absorb shoulder contact to the chest and long enough to not allow guys to get shots up over his outstretched arms. Jackson’s wide shoulders and large frame should allow his body to fill out well with an NBA training regimen:

He’s a great pick-and-roll defender, showing on ball-handlers and recovering in time to stay with big men. He can get a little bit turned around when recovering to his man, which may hurt him at the next level, but that’s correctable. More importantly, he has shown great feel for playing those lanes in between the ball handler and roll man.

And his help defense?? Wow. JJJ covers so much space, he truly does remind me of KP swinging over from the weak side to swat shots. In only 22 minutes a game, Jackson averaged 3.15 blocks per game, good for fifth in the NCAA. His 5.5(!!) blocks per 40 minutes was the best mark in the country, with the majority of those blocks coming as a help side defender:

If those blocks aren’t disruptive, then I don’t know what is. It feels like watching Anthony Davis at Kentucky swatting shots into the seventh row of the crowd. Also, who doesn’t want a guy who lets out a primal “GIMME THAT” after a monster block?

Another thing about his shot blocking instincts is how well he reads the path of opposing guards. He lurks on driving guards from behind, often taking excellent angles to prevent the pass back to his man outside.

Did I mention he’s 18?

He has gotten into foul trouble routinely (5.9 per 40 minutes) and will need to work on that, but Jackson has displayed good patience defending the post. He still bites on pump fakes down low sometimes, but has solid double- and triple-jumping ability, which is key to being an intimidating paint defender and offensive rebounder.

Watch how he is able to bother Grayson Allen’s drive here and then recover to block Marvin Bagley Jr.’s follow with multiple jumps:

He projects as a true inside-outside defensive stud if he can learn to stay a little bit more disciplined.

Offense

It’s the small things that stand out to me about Jackson Jr. The way he runs the floor with or without the ball, he looks silky smooth, like a long forward. He almost slices to the rim in transition. He’s incredibly light on his feet and reminds me of a more skilled Trevor Ariza when taking it to the hoop:

Jackson Jr. is good in space and has elite leaping ability, making him a good lob target, but he still lacks some explosiveness when jumping in a crowd. He shies away from contact and isn’t as assertive as he’ll need to be to make the jump at the next level and deal with collapsing NBA defenses.

For a man as gigantic as he is, JJJ is a phenomenal shooter. His 64.7 percent true shooting ranked fourth in the Big Ten. He has a quick release on his three-pointers and shot them at just a hair under 40 percent in his sole season at Michigan State. His release is a tiny bit funky as he holds the ball a little bit too far out in front of his face, but he’s consistent with his form and thus achieves steady results. His father was also a 39 percent three-point shooter through his 12-year NBA career if that’s any indicator for Junior.

One thing to highlight about his shooting is that NCAA free-throw percentage is statistically more telling of how a player will shoot from distance in the NBA than their three-point percentage was in college. Jackson Jr. shoots 79.7 percent from the line, a great mark for a man of his size.

With his size and shooting, he could potentially fit in with any offensive scheme in the NBA and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make a difference. He didn’t have the ball in his hands so much in college and wasn’t asked to look for his shot all that often. But when he did, he showed off his agility while facing up with tons of moves and counter moves. He is good at reading which way a post defender is leaning and uses shoulder fakes to get himself a good shot. Jackson needs to be more aggressive as he’s still a little soft inside (remind you of the scouting report on any special unicorn?).

If he adds some more muscle to his base, him and KP could be the perfect complements to each other on the offensive end: KP as the go-to guy, and Jackson as an off-ball shooter who can create for himself in a pinch.

He can occasionally get a little wild, like his limbs are a little bit too long for him to know what to do with them:

But if he works to get more aggressive and be more disciplined, we’re looking at a guy who can potentially be a long term fit with our organization’s Latvian savior.


While other big men in the draft have the potential to be dominant players on both ends of the floor, JJJ already does it. Bamba’s physical tools and defense in the paint can make him a game changer, but he has shown few signs of being anything near revolutionary on offense and can’t defend in space incredibly well. Ayton and Bagley are going to need to work on their defense to be consistent at the next level. JJJ already has the skill set to affect the game on multiple levels.

He can have a bit of a weak motor at times and takes plays off, but he was raised around professional basketball and the work ethic associated with it. He’s a smart player with good fundamentals and a bag of tools meant for the modern NBA. The sky’s the ceiling for this kid and his floor sits somewhere around Thon Maker. His best NBA comp is a smoother Serge Ibaka with a more consistent stroke from deep.

He may be the best complement to KP available in this draft and if he happens to miraculously be on the board when Adam Silver asks the Knicks to submit their pick, Jackson Jr. is prospect the Knicks can’t afford to pass on.


Hat-tip to Tobias Berger Go-To Guys for those defensive clips.

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