There’s Markelle Fultz, and there’s Lonzo Ball, but Kansas’ Josh Jackson is making himself incredibly hard to ignore.
Ever since the start of the conference play I’ve been vehement about Washington’s Markelle Fultz going first overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. As the year’s gone on, Fultz impressed on a terrible team, which gave way to Ball. Lonzo is the orchestrator of the NCAA’s most potent offense and having his skills in the national spotlight has been perfect for him. Now, as the tournament field begins to shrink, Josh Jackson is making a great case to leapfrog those two.
Coming out of Detroit, Jackson had the hype. He was widely regarded as the best athlete in the class of 2016 and 247Sports ranked him as their best prospect, giving the five-star recruit a ranking of 0.9999 out of one. That grade was the highest since Andrew Wiggins was given a perfect score in 2013. Jackson elected to play at Kansas and in one of the country’s toughest conferences, which would weight his numbers more heavily than his classmates and give him a platform to showcase against premier competition.
After 34 games (and counting), Jackson has fully lived up to all of his expectations, and he’s 2017’s best two-way player and arguably the best athlete. Regarding his explosiveness, NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr. is the only one giving him a run for his money. The separator, though, is Jackson knows how to use his athleticism, and he’s not wild or eccentric like most college players are.
For the year, he’s averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 38.6 from three. Jackson’s made it clear that his offense has polish and he’s not shackled to just rim-running and cleaning up the offensive glass. On the opposite side of the court, Jackson’s athleticism, anticipation and instincts wreaked havoc, and he totaled 58 steals (fifth in the conference) and 37 blocks, which worked out to 1.7 and 1.1 a night, respectively.
Here’s the list of all the Big 12 players, aside from Jackson, who averaged at least 1.5 steals and one block a night:
- Deonte Burton
- That’s it
General managers need to be looking more intently than ever because if they think his pre-tournament production was stellar, what he’s done to help Kansas advance has been even better. Jackson’s been radically more efficient from everywhere, including the free throw line where he shot just 55.9 percent during the regular season. He’s now made 4-of-6 attempts, and, yes, it’s bizarre he’s only taken six free throws in his three games.
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It’s not a bother. The Jayhawks haven’t been shy about feeding the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year, and he’s averaging 13.7 attempts through those contests. Jackson’s showing more of a repertoire and is shooting better than ever — 56.1 percent overall and 45.5 percent from three. He’s poured in 55 points and took over the second-round game against Michigan State with 23. Also, he’s still an exceptional rebounder (7.3 a night), but his defense has reached another level. And it’s clear that he’s reveling in the moment. Jackson’s come away with seven steals and four blocks thus far, and he’s been able to make an impact defensively without fouling (six in total).
His best showing was against the Spartans, and he took Miles Bridges to school regularly. Whether it was in the post, on the perimeter or Jackson putting the ball on the floor, he forced himself onto Michigan State, and Bridges was the Spartans most reliable defender for the length of the year.
If the Celtics do wind up with the first overall pick, it’ll be fascinating to see if they consider Jackson. Ball and Fultz would both be able to make it work, but Ball would be the better fit because he’s not a ball-dominant guard and is always looking to move the ball to the open man. Fultz needs the ball to have an impact. Jackson is similar to Ball regarding being an active complement, and he’s like Jaylen Brown but exponentially more reliable offensively. Moreover, he’d be ideal for defensive purposes late in games and Boston has struggled to be the force they once were.
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The very real possibility of having Jackson and Ball matchup in the Final Four make me want to tape my TV to my face. Kansas will first need to get by the Oregon Ducks and Dillon Brooks, but that’s more likely than the Bruins beating Kentucky. Ball is going to have his hands full with De’Aaron Fox on both ends of the court and, should they meet in the Final Four, I don’t see why Bill Self wouldn’t put Jackson on him just for disruptive purposes.
Should Jackson lock up Ball and Bruins and have an explosive game offensively while leading Kansas to the final, his case for going first overall with be even more legitimate. The odds of that happening aren’t crazy, but it won’t be a lost cause if that doesn’t happen. Either UNC, Kentucky or Butler will face Kansas if they advance, and there aren’t scrubs on those teams either.
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