Over a good portion of the 2010’s, both college basketball and the NBA has been dominated by uber-athletic young players that can switch off between playing small forward and power forward at a moment’s notice. While combo forwards have technically been around since the days of Elgin Baylor, it’s only been until recently where those type of players have reached the apex of basketball.
Perhaps the best example of how combo forwards have been recently dominating basketball was seen during last year’s NBA Draft. Among the initial five prospects taken during the 2016 NBA Draft, the trio of Ben SImmons, Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown went back-to-back-to back, respectively. Although it’s yet to be seen how each member of that trio will do in the NBA (Simmons has yet to play a single minute for the 76ers), it’s still a pretty solid example of where basketball has been going over the last few years.
A player looking to follow in the footsteps of Ingram or Brown is current Kansas Jayhawks forward Josh Jackson. In a similar way to that duo, Jackson has actually been a prominent figure to diehard basketball fans for a few years due to his prior standing as one of the elite prospects in the high school class of 2016. Before becoming a Jayhawk, Jackson was a McDonald’s All-American while also helping leading team USA to gold medals in the U-17 World Championships in 2014 and the U-19 World Championships in 2015.
Although that high school success put a lot of eyes on Jackson, it paled in comparison for what he was expected to do when he made that transition to Kansas. Due to his status as arguably the best prospect in that year’s high school class, Jackson was expected to help push the Jayhawks to the Final Four and beyond.
While it’s yet to be seen if Jackson can push the Jayhawks to success in the NCAA Tournament, he’s done a great job of becoming arguably the most pivotal player on the 3rd highest ranked squad in college basketball. His status as Kansas’ best player is seen by him averaging 16.5 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game on 51% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc. That efficiency as a scorer has allowed Jackson to maintain a respectable 55% True Shooting Percentage.
Jackson has been able to put up those solid offensive numbers due to how versatile he is on that end of the court. Throughout the season, Jackson has showcased an ability to shine in the following ways: mid-range and perimeter shooting, on-ball cuts, working the offensive glass and facilitating. While solid in each of those avenues, Jackson’s best skill on the offensive end is probably as an on-ball cutter.
That skill as a cutter, whether it would be on or off-ball has a lot to do with his incredible quickness and athleticism. Anytime he’s moving around the court, Jackson looks less like your typical power forward and more like a Russell Westbrook with the way he’s just able to drive towards the rim. With a quick first step and solid handles, Jackson can drive to the left or right side of the paint whenever he desires.
After Jackson’s able to drive past that perimeter defender and make his way to the paint is where he’s really able to shine. Jackson really has an incredible to score around the rim in a variety of different ways, whether it’s through rim-rocking dunks or being wrapped around opposing bigs. Although those terrific slams are more likely to get Jackson on ESPN, his ability to score around contact is a skill that is more likely to intrigue scouts across the NBA. As evident in the play below, Jackson does a nice job of utilizing his strong 207 pound frame to score around the rim despite driving into an opposing big.
Another way where Jackson can utilize his strong frame and athleticism is through working the offensive glass. During his freshman season, Jackson is averaging a solid 2.4 offensive rebounds in his 30.4 minutes per game. There’s no doubt that Jackson’s athleticism helps in this avenue, but you also have to factor in the effort that he constantly puts in when he’s working on the offensive glass. On nearly possession, you can find Jackson just boxing out to try to get the best position against the opposing player. Once he does that, Jackson can either finish with a emphatic put back slam or a soft layup.
Transitioning from the paint to the perimeter, Jackson has made some remarkable strides as a shooter during his time with Kansas. At the start of the season, Jackson was as pedestrian as a player can possibly be as a perimeter shooter. During Kansas’ non-conference slate, Jackson only shot 33% from beyond the arc on 2.7 perimeter attempts per game. Fortunately, that improved once Jackson started to compete against Big 12 competition as his percentage from beyond the arc increased to an impressive 42%.
Although Jackson has impressed as a perimeter shooter during Big 12 play, there’s still some cause for concern for the future. A lot of those worries come from Jackson’s janky shooting stroke. despite making this jumper, you can clearly see that Jackson appears to have the ball right in front of his nose just milliseconds before he launches up the shot. That one hitch could really prevent from him developing as a shooter since we’re unsure if Jackson can even have a good view of the rim when he’s shooting.
That final way that Jackson’s able to shine on the offensive end is through his work as a facilitator. With Kansas, Jackson has really established himself as the team’s point forward which is a role that he’s really become comfortable in over the course of the season. Jackson’s confidence as one of the team’s main facilitator is seen by how willing he is to work the ball to open teammates.
Alongside that, Jackson has also occasionally showed an ability as a drive-and-dish facilitator. That particular skill could be concerning to opposing teams as Jackson regularly shows an ability to get into the heart of the opposing team’s defense. Those traits have pushed Jackson to average 3 assists per game, which pushes him to be the best distributor among Big 12 power forwards.
Although Jackson has been able to shine as a solid and versatile offensive weapon, a ton of his upside as a player comes from his work on the defensive end. During his time at Kansas, Jackson has shined as an amazing defensive free safety that just constantly trolls around court. While it’s usually never good to troll, Jackson does a great job of that as he can use his quick feet to either get into passing lanes or work as a help defender. That kind of versatility has allowed Jackson to average 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. An example of Jackson’s aggression in the passing lanes is seen in the play below.
With the Kansas Jayhawks getting to the start of the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments, they’re going to stand as one of the favorites to win the likely favorites to win the title. That status will ultimately pushed the Jayhawks to be one of the more scrutinized teams in the country.
While they’ll look to push that narrative to the side due to their legendary head coach (Bill Self) and core experienced players, the attention will be centered on Josh Jackson to help push the Jayhawks to win the NCAA title. Although that might be too much pressure for most young players, I don’t think we’ve seen many freshman that’s athletic, intelligent and versatile as Josh Jackson.