Should Josh Jackson go #1 overall?
Before the season, there were a handful of contenders mentioned as possible #1 picks — NC State’s Dennis “Junior” Smith, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, and Kansas’ Josh Jackson among them.
Since then, Markelle Fultz has clearly established himself as the clear top dog in that pecking order. He’s listed as the #1 prospect and presumptive #1 pick on any credible website that you can find.
Meanwhile, Josh Jackson’s slipped some — to #3 on ESPN, #3 on draft express, #4 on nbadraft.net. I’ve even seen him listed as low as #9 in some recent mock drafts. Part of that is a credit to the strength of this draft class (and the rise of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, and Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, among others). Keep in mind, no one is saying that Jackson isn’t going to be a good pro. However, he’s fallen off the discussion as the #1 pick, at the same time as Fultz has seemingly locked it down.
But in my humble (and amateur) opinion, Jackson is still the best prospect in this class, ahead of Fultz. Here’s why.
If you judge based on stats alone, Markelle Fultz is the far superior prospect. He’s dominating in any statistical category that you can find. This kid is averaging 23.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks, with good percentages to boot (47.9% FG, 42.1% from three).
But stats aren’t everything. As much as the analytical evangelists want to revolutionize the way we look at basketball and football in the same way that Moneyball transformed baseball, the sports are quite different. Baseball, essentially, is one-on-one, batter vs. pitcher, wherein you can accrue so much useful data without many other contributing factors. Basketball and football are much more team dependent — you’re not only competing against your opponent for stats, you’re competing against your own teammates.
And in that context, Markelle Fultz doesn’t have much competition. It’s well documented that these Huskies aren’t very good (9-16 overall, 2-11 in Pac 12 play). Don’t get me wrong — that’s not Fultz’s fault. He went to a mediocre 19-15 Huskies team and saw them get gutted, talent wise. Leading scorer Andrew Andrews graduated, and the next two scorers (freshmen Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss) bolted for the draft early. That’s left the team with a dearth of talent — a problem that requires Fultz to pick up the slack. He’s doing an amazing job of that but isn’t getting much help. The 4 next leading scorers behind him are all sophomores who aren’t contributing much, causing the team to flounder despite Fultz’s brilliance.
But that talent deficit means that it’s completely Fultz’s show, for better or worse. He’s going to take every possession, every shot, every pass. He’s also had to log heavy minutes (35.8 per game). It’s no wonder that his usage rate and raw stats are so high.
Meanwhile, consider Josh Jackson’s case. The Jayhawks lost some key talent from their 33-5 team last year (in Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden), but they still had plenty in reserve. Specifically, the team has two veteran point guards in senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham. Jackson’s not a lead guard, so it’s natural that he’s going to defer to a pair of veterans. College basketball, by nature, is a guard driven sport that often leaves swingmen and big men underutilized. Given that, Jackson’s modest 16.5 points per game (in only 30.3 minutes) are more understandable.
Look, at the end of the day, even if you grade on a curve and adjust for minutes and teammates, Fultz’s stats are better than Jackson’s. There’s no denying that. But as mentioned, stats don’t tell the whole story. There’s more to discuss.
Right now, Fultz looks fairly bulletproof as a prospect. Aside from the great stats, he also has a great frame for a lead/combo guard. It’s estimated that he’s 6’4″ with a freakish wingspan of 6’9″. Given that, Fultz should be able to play either PG or SG on defense, while simultaneously controlling the ball on offense in the same way that James Harden does. Like Harden, Fultz can score, pass, and shoot the lights out.
Most likely. College basketball’s small sample size (of 30/40 games or so) makes it difficult to trust the numbers completely, especially when it comes to three-pointers. After making just 4 threes as a freshman, Arizona’s Derrick Williams tricked the world and rocketed up to the #2 pick because he shot 56.8% from three as a sophomore. (On less than 2 three attempts per game). As it turns out, that was a sample size fluke. In his six-year NBA career, Williams is still hovering under 30% from three.
Partly as a result of the Derrick Williams incident, stat heads like Kevin Pelton and Five-Thirty-Eight have started to lean heavily on free throws to determine shooting prowess, because there tend to be more of them to judge. In that regard, Fultz (42.1% from three) looks more vulnerable. He’s only shooting 64.4% from the line right now, which is a little worrisome. Most likely, Fultz is a good, not great shooter.
Okay, but even if Fultz is a good-but-not-great shooter, that still means he’s good at EVERYTHING. There are no flaws in his game. That translates as a can’t-miss prospect, right? Probably. But not definitely.
In fact, Fultz’s season reminds me a lot of Ohio State’s stellar freshman D’Angelo Russell. Russell took the reins for the Buckeyes and did it all — and he did it all well. He averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 41% from three. Those stats, coupled with his measurables (as a tall lead guard with long arms), combined to make him a stud prospect. In fact, many people thought he was the best prospect in his draft class. Two seasons into the NBA, Russell has been underwhelming (shooting 39.4% in 26.4 minutes per game this year). I still think Russell can develop into an All-Star, but he should give teams pause about trusting one do-it-all season in college to be a sure fire superstar.
Fultz is a better prospect than Russell, in my mind. He’s a little better in every facet of the game (particularly using his length to block shots, where he averages 1.3 per game compared to Russell’s 0.3). All I’m saying is that we should be cautious about calling him the no-brainer #1 pick. We should judge all options. And in my mind, there’s one better option out there.
Projecting Josh Jackson’s upside
Like Fultz, Josh Jackson can do basically anything he wants on a basketball court: he can score (16.5 points on 50.6% shooting), rebound (7.2), and defend (1.8 steals, 1.1 blocks). To my eye, he’s more athletic and quick twitch explosive than Fultz.
But unlike Fultz, there’s one MAJOR flaw in his game. Shooting. Uh… that’s kind of an important skill in today’s NBA, huh. And make no mistake: Jackson needs serious work in this regard. His three point shooter isn’t bad (35.3%) but his free throw shooting is atrocious at 56.3%.
That said, we’ve seen plenty of examples of wings improving their shooting once they become professionals. As a college freshman, Otto Porter made 23% of this threes; right now, he’s leading the league in three-point percentage. As a college freshman, Kawhi Leonard made 21% of this threes and 72.6% of his free throws — he’s miraculously bumped those up to 39.5% from three and 89.8% from the line this year.
Now, it’s a little biased to nitpick Markelle Fultz’s mediocre free throw shooting and completely excuse Josh Jackson’s worse free throw shooting, but the point is: Jackson should be able to improve that facet of the game. As far as we know, he’s displayed great work ethic, maturity, and basketball IQ so far. If he can work on his game and become a decent shooter (or at least as good as a LeBron), then he can utilize that superior athleticism to dominate the NBA.
That basketball IQ will be crucial to ensuring his stardom. If we can nitpick Fultz by comparing him to D’Angelo Russell, we can throw out a laundry list of examples of Jackson-like college wings who had the physical tools but never translated into stars in the NBA. The Jayhawk Ben McLemore and fellow non-shooter Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come to mind.
What separates Josh Jackson from that crop is that basketball IQ. Right now, Jackson’s averaging 3.0 assists per game. That may not sound like much, but remember that he’s playing alongside two veteran point guards who handle the ball. If he was the lone wolf on a team like Washington, that number would most likely be much higher. Wings like McLemore and Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t have that tool in the arsenal, never cracking more than 2.0 assists a game.
In my mind, Josh Jackson’s a better prospect than those two. In fact, I’d say that makes him an even better prospect than fellow one-and-done Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins excels with his athleticism and scoring ability, but Josh Jackson has a more well-rounded game. He also appears to be a stronger and more charismatic leader. Simply put, this kid doesn’t just have All-Star potential — he has superstar potential.
I know the majority of the comments to this post will be that I’m an idiot and that Markelle Fultz is so much better.
To that, I say: watch. Take a second look. Keep an open mind. Markelle Fultz is a great player and prospect (he’d be #2 to me), but I happen to like Josh Jackson a little more. You’ll get an extended opportunity to study Josh Jackson in the tournament when the Jayhawks could be making a long tournament run.
There, you’ll see a wiry kid with springs in his shoes, laying low, playing in the flow of the game, and taking charge whenever his team needs him the most, whether it’s a ball deflection or a putback dunk on an offensive rebound. I imagine you’ll see what I see: a player with so much talent in reserve, just waiting to become unleashed on the NBA.