Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson has been playing better lately, and acknowledging that fact up front should help what comes next feel less like a hit piece and more like a sincere inquiry into, you know, what's up with the No. 4 pick from the 2017 draft.
Jackson—averaging 13.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game to go with 4-of-10 shooting from deep over his last four games—particularly stood out during Monday's overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. He tied his season high with 18 points, hit a pair of triples and showcased the skill set that earned him a spot in the high lottery.
He flashed craft on a drive to his right, wrong-footing Montrezl Harrell for a scoop layup:
He showed off his two-way gifts with a breakdown drive against Tobias Harris on one end and a high-altitude rejection of Harris on the other:
Though Phoenix lost, and though Phoenix, generally, loses more games than anyone else these days, Jackson still offered glimpses of what made (and makes) him an intriguing talent. This, though, was an outlier performance, and Jackson has been objectively one of the worst players in the NBA this season.
Jackson's true shooting and usage percentages are both down from his rookie year (when they were already awful), as are his minutes per game and free-throw rate. His box plus-minus is second-worst in the league among players who've logged at least 500 minutes, and his defensive real plus-minus checks in at No. 72 among 87 qualified small forwards.
|Jackson's Stagnant Numbers|
To understate it, he's been disappointing. That's different than labeling him a disappointment, though, because that latter tag would put the onus on Jackson. It doesn't belong there. It belongs on the Suns, who took a deeply flawed player at a draft slot where you're supposed to grab a star.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a predraft writeup that didn't highlight Jackson's hitchy jumper. He had loads of plusses—defensive versatility, a guard's handle, vision, athleticism, a 6'8" frame that could accommodate more muscle—but that one glaring minus, the busted shot, was unavoidably conspicuous.
Every team that considered Jackson as a potential draftee had to know the risk of selecting a wing who didn't project as a floor-stretcher.
The Suns decided that critical weakness wasn't enough of a deterrent.
In 104 games as a professional, Jackson has shot 26.4 percent from deep, which has created a negative cascading effect on the rest of his game. Individual defenders sag off him when he has the ball, making drives difficult and encouraging long twos off the dribble. This also stifles Jackson's strength as a playmaker, as one defender giving a fat "I dare you to shoot it" cushion can handle the assignment without help. That leaves everyone else home on shooters, effectively shutting passing windows.
When Jackson doesn't have the ball in the half court, he can safely be ignored.
This was largely the case when Jackson was at Kansas, but his athleticism and a shorter three-point line masked the issue. He shot 37.8 percent from deep in college despite that funky form, and he's shooting 33.3 percent from 16-23 feet this season.
His poor free-throw shooting (56.6 percent in college) was another red flag.
Perhaps the Suns trusted their player development staff. Perhaps they saw some Kawhi Leonard in him. Or Jimmy Butler. Or any number of other improbable-growth stories. Collegians who can't shoot from deep but have promising two-way skills and NBA-ready bodies sometimes work out. Of course, Leonard and Butler went far later in the draft than Jackson did (Leonard was picked 15th, Butler 30th), and both are exceptions to the rule that shooting isn't an easily teachable skill.
Jackson, it seems, just shouldn't have been drafted so high. But the Suns' former braintrust had a history of blowing high-value picks. Deposed general manager Ryan McDonough made four top-five selections in his six seasons running the Suns. The haul: Alex Len, Dragan Bender, Jackson and Deandre Ayton (over Luka Doncic), the last of which might wind up being worst of all.
It should also be noted McDonough wouldn't trade the pick that became Jackson for Kyrie Irving, as ESPN's Jackie MacMullan reported in January. That should give a solid picture of Phoenix's recent resource management.
The Suns also haven't provided Jackson with an opportunity to grow. They've given him three coaches in a little over a year, not to mention switched GMs midstream. It's awfully hard to implement a coherent development plan when those in charge of creating it keep changing.
"I don't think any other player in my class has gone through as much change within their team as I have," Jackson told The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti. "Since the moment I came into the league, it's just been all about changes and adjustments—new coach after my second game of the season, like, c'mon now, really? That doesn't happen."
It does in Phoenix.
Another thing that happens in Phoenix: The organization makes a trade on draft night for Mikal Bridges and signs Trevor Ariza—two wings who play Jackson's position. No team as bad as Phoenix should approach roster construction based on positional need, but when you've got an already distressed asset like Jackson, doesn't it make sense to use what should be another lost season as a growth opportunity?
That Phoenix seemed to think it was a playoff contender stands as another indictment of management's grip on reason.
None of this is to say Jackson is free from blame. Some players really do learn to shoot. Jackson's teammate, T.J. Warren, did it over the summer. Warren shot 28.3 percent from deep over his first four years with the Suns. This season, on dramatically increased volume, he's at 44.4 percent.
Justise Winslow is another fair comparison. The Heat forward shot 27.6 percent from deep in his rookie season, 20.0 percent as a sophomore and then, bang: 38.0 percent last year. In the midst of the best stretch of his career right now, Winslow is all the way up to 39.2 percent in 2018-19.
In light of those success stories, Jackson still has a shot to become a complete player. It might also help if he retooled his shot or if the Suns gave him more time at power forward, a spot he manned occasionally in college and one that could mitigate his shooting weaknesses by pitting him against slower defenders.
For now, this feels like one of those particularly disheartening situations in which the player, who had no control over his draft slot or the makeup of the organization selecting him, is bearing the brunt of the scrutiny and judgment. Jackson shouldn't have gone as high as he did in the draft—not with that shot—and he shouldn't have wound up on the Suns, as his weaknesses have been magnified by his franchise's dysfunction...and lots of losing.
Mike Schmitz @Mike_Schmitz
Really don't think we talk about situation enough in regards to Josh Jackson's development. If he were drafted into a winning situation like the Celtics, we might be praising his toughness and explosiveness rather than criticizing his inconsistent shooting and sometimes wild play
If he delivers on his potential, it'll be in spite of some crummy circumstances.
It's hard to find lessons in the story of Jackson's early career, other than the one we already know: Don't use a high lottery pick on a wing who can't shoot and then be disappointed when said wing's inability to shoot obstructs his path to competent play.
Maybe the broader instructive point has to do with assigning responsibility. Jackson arrived in Phoenix as exactly the player everyone understood him to be. He's still that player, and if that's disappointing to the Suns, it's their fault, not his.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Monday.