Age, Josh Jackson, and Unexpected Development

Josh Jackson is a really good prospect. He is a true two-way player who can pass, attack, and defend at high-levels. His shot is a real flaw, but there are good reasons to believe he will at least be an acceptable outside shooter in the NBA.

There are plenty of other good breakdowns out there about why Josh Jackson is a good prospect. His DraftExpress video is, as is the case with many prospects, a good place to start. This will not be a piece explaining why Jackson is good.

I have Jackson #4 on my board. That is not an unusually low position to have him, but a fair subset of the draft community has him #2 and is convinced he should be no lower than #3. So, this is a piece explaining why Jackson does not have the upside to justify a top-2 selection. To be clear, I do not hate Jackson as a prospect at all — I’m just not a huge fan of his upside.

There are three main factors that are talked about, but not appreciated quite enough, when talking about Jackson’s ceiling.

He played in an absolutely perfect situation

Team context really matters when looking at a draft prospect’s numbers. In Jackson’s case, it is hard to imagine a better context. For starters, he played next to a backcourt of Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, and Sviatoslav Mykahiliuk, with LaGerald Vick coming off the bench.

Frank Mason was this year’s NCAA national player of the year. Devonte Graham is an NBA point guard prospect in his own right. Mason shot 47.1% from three, Graham 38.8%, Mykahiliuk 39.8%, and Vick 37.0%. All of them were high-volume, efficient outside shooters.

Oh, and the fact that he played next to three of those guys at a time meant he was playing at the power forward slot. Both of these factors are absolutely huge. None of his teammates are particularly great passers, but playing the 4 as a wing at the college level next to three shooters, two of which are great creators, is nearly as optimal as an offensive situation can be. Yes, Kansas’s big men kinda sucked. That doesn’t matter too much when you have the type of guard play (and Jackson) that Kansas had.

Playing the 4 particularly overstates a player’s ability to create for themselves. Jackson had a huge quickness advantage on nearly every guy who guarded him at the college level. He’s a good athlete even for an NBA wing, but he won’t be able to overwhelm guys attacking downhill the way he did for most of his college scores. Plays like this just won’t be available, and if you watch his film they make up a ton of his self-created offense.

His matchup against Michigan State and Miles Bridges in the tournament was illustrative. Bridges is merely an average perimeter defender by NBA wing standards, but Jackson wasn’t able to get a step on him and only scored through step-backs and off-ball advantages.

Jackson’s game would require hugely dramatic growth to ever be considered a primary creator. Right now he’s a questionable shooter, handler, and decision maker. He has good athleticism and vision but not the type of freaky tools you would project growth unto. Jackson’s “good-not-great” profile also appears on the other end of the floor.

Jackson is not an elite defensive prospect

One of the most popular comparisons for Jackson is Andre Iguodala. This comparison is flawed for a number of reasons. Jackson is a good passing wing while Iguodala is an all-time great one. Jackson is a good athlete but Iguodala was a dunk-contest winning (or at least should have won) level one. Jackson has a skinny frame that has struggled to put on weight while Iguodala was 15 pounds heavier at the same age despite being an inch shorter. Jackson is a good defensive prospect while Iguodala is one of the best defensive wings ever.

Some scouting reports say otherwise, but there is little reason to believe Jackson is a truly elite defensive prospect. His competitiveness and defensive playmaking instincts are awesome, but he lacks length, strength, and awareness. Jackson’s skinny frame in conjunction with his relatively short (6'10) arms and not quite elite athleticism are a big deal. All of the great wing defenders in the league are long, strong, or athletic in a way Jackson is not.

Kawhi has advantages in length and strength. Paul George in length and athleticism. Jimmy Butler in strength and some athleticism. Tony Allen in strength (and having the best instincts maybe ever). Iguodala in strength and athleticism. If you look through the great wing defenders they’ll usually be stronger (even at Jackson’s age) and possibly longer or more athletic. Jackson could make up for it if he were top-notch in the instincts and awareness department, but he’s not. He plays for steals too much and loses track of important assignments. Even when he misses, digging down off Malik Monk is not a good idea.

Plays like the one above show up far too often in his tape to compensate for his good not great physical tools. He is likely to be a good NBA defender. He plays with a lot of intensity, has above-average tools, and has real instincts. However, he is not going to be a great NBA defender, and that matters, at least when discussing his upside.

Jackson’s Age Makes Unexpected Improvement Less Likely

Given the above conclusions about his defense and creating offense, Jackson would need to improve in a dramatic and unexpected way to become a bonafide all-star. Unfortunately, and this is much more hypothesis than it is fact, I believe Jackson’s age means it is less reasonable to project unforeseen growth unto his future.

This has always been a pet hypothesis of mine. The thinking is that the guys who are most likely to be underrated are those who have always been younger than their competition. At youth levels guys get better every few months, and being a July birthday who is old for your grade is drastically different from being a young May birthday. Guys on the younger side for their grade are likely to be less physically and mentally developed than their peers throughout high school.

The difference isn’t always dramatic or even there at all, but in some cases it absolutely is. Only in the NBA do age curves finally catch up. Everyone has a chance to reach their “peak” age, and be evaluated accordingly. Additionally, guys who have been younger their whole lives are probably more used to getting by on skill and instinct advantages since they might have been a touch less strong and developed than their competition most of the time.

This is all logically fine reasoning, but I had never sought to prove it. Jackson is such an extreme case that I felt the need to look into things more. He will be 20.3 years old by draft time, which is about as old as a college freshman can be. The fact that he’s a player who has largely won at every level off his physical advantages only makes his “older” profile more discouraging.

So, I went through all the recent NBA players I could think of who could be seen as dramatically improving on their expected development curve. I’m sure there are people I left out or people I included who others would quibble over. For context, the “average” freshman is about 19.5 years old as of the draft, sophomore 20.5, and so on for juniors/seniors. This number is changing over time as re-classing becomes more popular and prospects are typically older for their grades, but is still a good estimate. I grouped players by year they left college and what their age was as of the draft.

Numbers via DraftExpress

The numbers are pretty staggering. Every single one of these guys who made a “leap” in the NBA was young for their grade with the exception of Patrick Beverley. Many of them were significantly outlier young (Westbrook, Arenas, Butler, Crowder, Middleton, Redd). You can see that Josh Jackson is as old as a freshman as all of the other guys, except for Beverley, were as sophomores.

This informal study is by no means conclusive. Nor does it intend to suggest that all players who are young for their grade are likely to improve at greater rates. Yet, it does make sense logically and there is an undeniable trend in the data. Being old won’t prevent Josh Jackson from being good, but it might hurt his chances at getting better in a way people don’t see coming.

The point of all this is not to bash Jackson. He has all the makings of a very useful two-way NBA player. If things break right and he shoots in the 35–37% range from three he could be a borderline all-star. Still, his profile is full of indicators that suggest he is not elite on either end, and that his chances of improving may be less than expected. Therefore, he shouldn’t be in the discussion for a top-two pick and is much more in the same tier as others in the 3–8 range.

In some ways, part of me worries that even #4 overall is too high for Jackson. One can make a somewhat scary comparison between Justise Winslow’s post-injury NCAA numbers and Jackson’s hot stretch of play towards the end of his season.

Both charts courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Winslow played in a similarly perfect college offensive situation and was also compared to guys like Jimmy Butler and Kawhi as a result. Winslow was also over a year younger than Jackson during their respective freshman seasons. So far at least, Winslow’s totally failed to shoot the ball in the NBA and kind of sucked on offense.

This comparison isn’t too scary for a few reasons, but it is at least concerning. For one, Winslow is still a decent bet to become a very useful NBA player and at least average offensive one. Secondly, Jackson’s shown more competency as an off-the-dribble shooter than Winslow did, which is encouraging for his shot translation. Also, that Jackson relies more on quickness and less on overpowering guys than Winslow is a good sign.

I still have Jackson #4. His competitiveness and well-rounded profile is difficult to bet against. All I’m saying, is that he should be more in the conversation with the players projected to go behind him, rather than Ball and Fultz.