While Trae Young and Luka Doncic set records and Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III average 20-point double-doubles, Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. is quietly working NBA scouts behind the curtain, winning them over by checking a unique, valued mix of boxes.
"Modern-day 4," one scout told Bleacher Report. "Runs the floor, can finish, score in the post, hit threes and pass it well. Also impacts the game with his ability to switch ball screens and block shots. He's good now, and he's only going to get better."
Roughly four months removed from his 18th birthday, Jackson is on pace to be the only college player in over 25 years to average three blocks and a three-point make in fewer than 25.0 minutes a game (he plays 23.0), per Sports-Reference.com. Five times this season he's finished with multiple blocks and threes.
Though limited as a scorer relative to the other names in the lottery discussion, his potential to stretch the floor and protect the rim, as well as switch out in pick-and-roll coverage, is a major selling point to scouts.
He already had their attention after high school, particularly following his standout performance during April's Nike Hoop Summit. And so far he's validating early big boards that may have overranked him to account for long-term potential.
Another scout confirmed that Nos. 6-10 is a realistic draft range for Jackson, who's in the mix with Texas' Mohamed Bamba as the next-most attractive big behind Ayton and Bagley.
Like Bamba, Jackson's sales pitch still revolves around defense. They both rank top five in the country in defensive plus-minus, registering two of the highest block percentages recorded among first-round prospects over the last decade. Hassan Whiteside stands out as the only NBA starter to finish college with a higher block percentage than Jackson's 14.0 percent (or Bamba's 15.8).
Light on his feet and long (7'4" wingspan), Jackson covers ground and airspace quickly, often coming out of nowhere off the ball to make a play on it. And we've seen enough flashes of lateral foot speed for scouts to feel confident in his switchability and versatility to guard 5s and 4s.
Compared to Bamba, who'll be turning 20 in May—around 16 months before Jackson escapes his teens—Michigan State's big man has also been more productive offensively, averaging 20.0 points per 40 minutes to Bamba's 15.6.
Key Synergy Sports Numbers
Jump shots: 1.182 PPP, 40.9 percent, 86th percentile
Despite the strange pushing motion on his shot, Jackson has been accurate as a shooter, making 43.4 percent of his threes and 81.1 percent of his free throws. The touch didn't come out of nowhere, as Jackson showed promise from the outside last year in high school and AAU.
He's also only taken eight shots total that haven't been threes or attempts in the paint, which is the type of shot selection more NBA coaches are getting behind.
Post-up (12.7 percent of offense): 1.214 PPP, 96th percentile
Used mostly as a spot-up shooter and cutter, Jackson isn't featured often, but he has shown he can operate playing back to the basket with basic post hooks. He's 9-of-12 total and 6-of-6 from the right block, where he either turns over his left shoulder or drop-steps.
Around basket (non-post-ups): 41.7 percent, .896 PPP, 18th percentile
Jackson hasn't had great success finishing at the rim in the half court, a surprising development when considering his tools and athleticism. His age and sample size, plus the handful of poster dunks he's already executed, suggest the early numbers may be fluky and correctable. It's still something worth monitoring moving forward.
Jackson hasn't recorded a basket out of isolation. It's what's likely to keep him from rising into the top tier of prospects with Ayton and Bagley (and/or Young, depending on who's asked), who have established themselves as greater threats to create their own shot or scoring chances.
What to Watch
In a heavily scouted matchup against Duke in November, Jackson opened the season strong with 19 points, three triples and three blocks, and his performance wasn't diminished by Bagley's early departure due to injury.
Since then, Jackson has been steady, consistently making open shots and protecting the basket playing mostly power forward alongside the interior-oriented Nick Ward. But those 19 points remain a season high, which he matched for the first time in a loss to Michigan on Saturday.
Given his scoring limitations and unconventional jump-shot mechanics, it's important he continues to have success shooting from outside. Leapfrogging Bamba, Young or Michael Porter Jr., however, would likely mean kicking it up a notch offensively.
As of January 17, the five NBA teams with the lowest defensive efficiency project to pick in the top 10 in 2018. The Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers (picking via Brooklyn Nets), Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks could each use Jackson's defense.
He'd also fit in Memphis (projected to pick No. 5) and Dallas (No. 6), where the Grizzlies and Mavericks, respectively, lack depth and youth up front.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who have the Los Angeles Lakers' pick if it's No. 1 or No. 6-30, could also show interest in Jackson as another three-and-D weapon to surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If that Lakers pick is No. 2-5, it goes to the Boston Celtics, a team that could upgrade at power forward as well.
The Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz and Charlotte Hornets represent three more projected lottery teams lacking upside at either the 4 or 5 positions.
Except for the Magic with Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic, almost every organization expected to draft early could be a fitting suitor for Jackson, the low-key lottery lock of 2018.
Advanced stats courtesy of Synergy Sports unless otherwise noted