Although North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson is projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round of the 2017 NBA draft, the Knicks have worked out Jackson privately in what some would assume is due diligence and others assume is a natural disaster waiting to be unleashed upon us. I’ve previously touched on my thoughts about Jackson in a story way too long for anyone to ever read. These were my preliminary thoughts on Jackson before this more in-depth attempt to scout him.
Justin Jackson himself has cited his agent in saying there were rumors of the Knicks trading down in the draft, which could put some in the organization at risk of catching these hands on an MTA bus, per my sources. Multiple other reports have surfaced however (here and here), that the Blazers and Knicks have been discussing trades that would give New York additional first round picks via Portland’s plethora of first round selections (#15, #20, #26). This all in addition to earlier noise that Detroit may be interested in trading their first round pick (#12).
In his junior season, Jackson was named ACC player of the year and ended his collegiate career winning a national title for the Tar Heels, redemption for his sophomore season in which the Tar Heels came up short against Villanova in the best basketball game I’ve ever seen.
Jackson’s perimeter shooting, once flawed, has developed so positively that it’s likely the most important factor in his improved draft stock. One of the biggest testaments to Jackson’s work ethic is his relentless work on his jumper, which took place after many NBA scouts let him know at last year’s draft combine that 29% isn’t going to cut it.
Here are Jackson’s career stats. Obviously, note the 3P%, but also note the huge jump in attempts from three a game (2015/2016) to over seven per game in 2016/2017.
Now take a look at the history of Jackson’s draft stock, where there’s clearly some correlation.
Mike Schmidtz of Draft Express beat me to the punch on detailing Jackon’s improved shooting mechanics and did an excellent job in the below video.
Jackson’s perimeter shooting was so crucial to the Tar Heels’ success that he can almost single-handedly claim responsibility for getting UNC into the national championship game after hitting three 3’s in the final four minutes of the semifinals matchup, barely squeaking past Oregon 77-76. Jackson’s range improved big-time and he shot about 42% from behind-the-arc in the NCAA tournament leading up the title game (where he then shot an abysmal 0-9 from 3).
Jackson seems comfortable playing a fast pace and gets up and down well for his size, both with and without the ball. Now that he’s simplified and shortened his shooting stroke, he’s able to not only catch and shoot quickly, but do so from a multitude of distances.
Beyond transition play, Jackson also thrived in swinging the rock to open shooters. In the half court, the ball rarely sticks to Jackson, and in a stat called “pure point rating” (or PPR - explained here), Jackson ranked best among the top 100 small forwards in college basketball, as well as ranking first in assist-to-turnover ratio for small forwards.
Jackson’s ability to handle the ball in the open floor is great, but in the half court, he’s more limited as a dribbler. The good thing is, a few small tweaks and improvements would go a long way for his play-making abilities, especially considering his willingness and ability to pass and see cutters.
Other than the improved jumper, coach Roy Williams would constantly run Jackson off of screens to help him beat the defense. With some simple curl actions, Jackson would often receive the ball on-the-move while curling towards the top of the key. If given space, Jackson would let it fly without hesitation. If his defender was trailing, Jackson would typically avoid contact (he shot only about three FT’s per game) and continue his momentum right down the middle of the lane, opting for some type of push shot.
Jackson’s distaste for contact didn’t just rear its head on drives, but also on defense, especially when he would hear or feel a screen approaching.
Jackson had the poorest defensive rating of any Tar Heel this past season (of players who played more than five minutes per game), however, team defense can impact that statistic. Jackson is not a shot blocker and he needs to defend with a bit more physicality, but his ball denial, on-ball defense, and defensive IQ are all strengths.
Another good sign which indicates “smart defender” to me is a player’s habitual challenging of shots, even when late.
Jackson slides fairly well, but needs to get stronger in his lower body. While he has a knack for being in the right spots on the floor, his lack of strength and jumping ability likely make him a non-factor on the boards at the next level.
Casual Knicks fans know Matt Barnes best for delivering the literal 2-piece to Derek Fisher that the league figuratively gave his teams while he was head coach of the Knicks. Barnes, an enigma as a great teammate but also at times a loose cannon, has similar measurements and skills as Jackson and has made a long career for himself as an above-average wing defender who can hit open shots, all while having the reputation as a bad seed, something Jackson is the antithesis of. Another player I really see a lot of in Jackson is Omri Casspi. Jackson’s athleticism is greater than Casspi’s, but lesser than peak Barnes, so a combination of those two players is both a fair expectation and a decent outlook.
In a recent interview with the NBPA, Jackson mentioned that he wears No. 44 because his favorite player is/was George Gervin. That fact reveals so much about who Jackson is, a smooth operator on the floor who’s well-versed in his basketball knowledge and understands the game’s origins. By all accounts a great kid and a smart player, I’m not sure if the Knicks are in a position to simply fill needs or draft lower-ceiling players so early. While the 22-year-old Jackson could be a glue guy for some franchises and could certainly project as a potential 3-and-D guy, his strength and athletic limitations at his age seem to affirm a lower trajectory relative to some peers. Justin Jackson is a quality player, and no team who gets him should be disappointed, however, the scattered gems in this draft feel plentiful and run deep. Jackson reads as a known quantity, appealing to some, but maybe not the right fit for a franchise in peril.