Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. could crash top-five party at 2018 NBA Draft

Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. feels like the closest thing to an actualized unicorn college basketball has to offer.

When the Warriors popularized their modern iteration of small ball during the 2015 NBA Finals, they did so by playing big despite going small thanks to Draymond Green. The 6-7 poster child for second-round steals in the NBA Draft allowed the Warriors to reap the rewards of a five-out offense without sacrificing much defensively despite his short stature.

It’s a dream that’s proven nearly impossible to replicate. There are, after all, fewer than a handful of players in the NBA who can do what Green does. However, as Golden State continues to thrive, especially after swapping Harrison Barnes for Kevin Durant, a new archetype is giving hope to other NBA franchises that they may be able to figure out a similar formula.

Teams are seeking out frontcourt players who allow them to play small while staying big. Where Green’s uniqueness shines most noticeably on defense, 7-footers like Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid have evolved their offensive games to become as threatening on the perimeter as they are in the post while acting as rim protectors defensively. In turn, they’ve been dubbed "unicorns."

Of course, that simplifies things a bit. The most unicorn of unicorns do more than shoot 3-pointers and block shots. They defend on the perimeter, make plays off the bounce and dominate opponents in the post. But there are still more potential unicorns than Draymonds, and the 2018 NBA Draft is proof.

This class features its fair share of theoretical unicorns at the top of the projected lottery. There’s Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, a 7-footer with a Karl-Anthony Towns-esque offensive game who still needs to find his footing defensively, but with all the physical tools to do so. There’s also Texas’s Mohamed Bamba. His combination of a 7-9 wingspan, agile feet and intriguing shooting touch could turn him into something special if it ever comes together. Think Rudy Gobert with a 3-point shot.

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Then, there’s Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., one of only two college freshmen dating back to at least 1992-93 to average more than 2.0 blocks and 2.8 3-point attempts per game while shooting better than 80.0 percent from the foul line — a key predictor of future shooting success. The other player to do it, Missouri’s Jontay Porter, is an intriguing prospect in his own right, but faces athletic questions Jackson’s already answered.

In short, Jackson feels like the closest thing to an actualized unicorn college basketball has to offer.

At 6-11, Jackson’s defensive bona fides fit the bill of the mythological moniker. His 7-4 wingspan, excellent vertical explosion and high level instincts have already established him as an effective rim protector nearly everywhere on the floor:



Jackson’s combination of physical attributes and a hot-running motor makes him special. In respective clips from the compilation above, he chases down North Carolina’s Joel Berry in transition, rotates to block a shot from the weak side against Duke’s Trevon Duval and fights through a screen to swat away a midrange jumper from Nebraska’s Isaac Copeland. His length is also on display in the second clip where he meets Copeland at the apex of his shot.

The Spartan’s 4.0 blocks per 40 minutes currently rank second among the five freshmen bigs projected to go in the lottery behind Bamba, but to date, Jackson has shown the most impressive collection of rim protection skill within the group. He anticipates well, blocks shots with both hands and is learning verticality. Bamba still has better physical tools at his disposal, requiring Jackson to make up for about five inches of wingspan with extra effort in most cases.

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While that may ultimately mean Jackson’s defensive ceiling is lower than Bamba’s, his potential for actualizing it is probably higher, and not just at the rim. Effort makes Jackson a competent perimeter defender as well.

Follow him on this possession as he runs around an off-ball screen, cuts off guard penetration while defending a ball screen and then rotates all the way around the perimeter to the open man before helping off him to block a shot attempt:



The above clip shows Jackson’s agility on the perimeter. He has light feet, good anticipation and quality fundamentals. When he closes out to the 3-point arc, Jackson frequently arrives sitting down in a stance with his hand raised to contest a potential shot and obstruct the view of his man. Often, guards simply move the ball along rather than challenge the big man.

Through the first nine games of his young college career, Jackson has already shown a defensive skill set that could one day anchor an NBA defense. His rim protection — assuming he can clean up his fouling — provides a solid foundation while his ability to switch and take on guards will give his head coach plenty of flexibility when drawing up game plans.

On the offensive end, Jackson is currently more supporting cast than centerpiece despite sporting a 25.5 percent usage rate. Still, he’s shown flashes of intriguing potential, which is exciting given he’s one of the youngest prospects in the class.

In line with the unicorn classification, though, Jackson is a projectable 3-point shooter:



Playing alongside Nick Ward, a true post up big, Jackson is relied on as a floor spacer by Michigan State. He’s taking 5.3 3-pointers per 40 minutes while launching 40.6 percent of his total field goal attempts from behind the arc, suggestive of a coaching staff that has faith in his ability to knock those shots down. Jackson often crosses halfcourt in line with or behind the ball to set up trail 3s from the top of the key, but he can hit them from the corner as well. At this point, he’s strictly a spot-up shooter who likes to step into his shot rather than someone who can shoot off movement. He’s even struggled early connecting on pick-and-pop looks.

Jackson’s form on his 3-point jumper is less than perfect, but seems to deliver results. It comes out of his hands away from his face typically with little arc. In many ways, it looks like he’s pushing the ball towards the hoop rather than shooting it. At the free throw line, where he’s converting 81.8 percent of his chances, Jackson’s shot looks smoother, giving hope that as he gets stronger and more comfortable at distance, his form will improve.

Also on the perimeter, Jackson has flashed the ability to attack close outs in a straight line drive. Don’t expect much in the way of playmaking for others or any kind of change of direction, but if it’s a straight point A to point B, Jackson can get there.

However, his finishing around the basket is emerging as a potential point of concern. Out of 473 Division I players with at least 25 attempts at the rim this season, Jackson ranks 461st at 0.759 points per possession, per Synergy, as he’s shooting just 37.9 percent on those attempts. While some percentage of those struggles can be chalked up to variance over a small sample size, Jackson does seem to have difficulty finishing through contact.

It’s still too early to draw conclusions about the rest of Jackson’s offensive game from a creation standpoint. He’s only logged eight possessions in the post, per Synergy, and every pick-and-roll action he’s ran has led to a pop rather than a dive to the rim. In theory, his vertical pop and length should make him a solid rim runner with time. A lot of this comes from his situation at Michigan State as discussed above, and it’s a differentiating factor between him and prospects like Ayton, Bagley and Carter who are more frequently used in those scenarios.

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Although Jackson has an undefined post game, he checks many of the boxes already associated with the NBA’s new unicorn big men. Jackson is projectable as a 3-point shooter, a quality rim protector and capable of switching onto smaller players along the perimeter. He would be easy to fit into most NBA rosters.

So far, the projected top five of the 2018 NBA Draft has formed around a consensus with Ayton, Bagley and Bamba alongside Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., but it’s December, and nothing is set in stone. If Jackson continues to shore up his unicorn credentials, he’ll force his way into that conversation.

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