Before this current seven (soon to be eight) year playoff drought, the Suns had only missed the playoffs three times in my lifetime. For the first 22 years of my life, tanking wasn’t even in the Suns’ vocabulary. As I approach 30, tanking hasn’t just entered the Suns lexicon, it’s become a way of life. Seven Seconds or Less has depreciated into the Seventh Pick or Higher (management prefers to call it “The Timeline”). However, the Suns recent draft history suggests that tanking isn’t necessarily the solution. Their two best draft picks in the past 5 years (TJ Warren and Devin Booker) were taken at 14 and 13 respectively. Meanwhile, their top-10 picks have left a lot to be desired.
Alex Len has molded himself into a serviceable back-up big man, a far cry from what the Suns expected when they drafted him fifth overall in 2013. In 2016, they drafted Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss at four and eight respectively. While both have been productive in small stretches, neither have instilled much confidence that they will be starter-caliber players, much less a second star to pair with Booker. When the Suns picked Josh Jackson with the fourth pick in last year’s draft, Suns fans believed that he would be the one to break that streak of mediocrity. But, for the first half of this year, Jackson seem fated to join that group as he struggled mightily out of the gates.
Josh Jackson’s most intriguing traits out of college were his tireless energy and supreme athleticism. However, those just weren’t translating into on-court production during the first half of the season. Even though he was usually one of the fastest players on the court, the game seemed to move too fast for him. His over-aggressiveness on offense led to countless unruly drives to the rim and ugly step back jumpers. His defensive efforts were marred by missed assignments and gratuitous fouling. He was playing like he was supposed to be the savior of the franchise instead of letting the game come to him. These struggles culminated in a DNP-CD on January 2nd against the Hawks. At that point, he was averaging 9 points and 3.5 rebounds on 37.8 FG%, 23.9 3PT%, 56.4 FT%. His (lack of) offense made him a liability on the floor, and his mere 21.6 minutes per game reflected that.
Since the benching, Jackson has averaged 15.1 points and 5.9 rebounds on 44.6 FG%, 28.9 3PT%, and 67.8 FT%. The leap in his efficiency is a product of better shot selection and finishing at the rim. Up until that January 2nd game, Jackson was taking 3.5 shots per game from within five feet at 48.9% clip. Since then, he has upped those attempts to 5.9 a game while shooting 59.1%. Jackson is starting to pick his spots, unleashing his energy in controlled bursts. This has allowed him to slow down and become more comfortable as he adjusts to the speed of the game.
Jackson still uses his lightning quick first step to get into the lane with ease, but now he’s reacting to defenses with crafty spins and floaters instead of just driving in, head down like a charge waiting to happen. His speed and athleticism make him an ideal fast break finisher and slasher, especially now that they have a real point guard. It still remains to be seen whether he can become a feasible second scoring threat next to Devin Booker. His jump shot still makes me cringe (I swear, his hitch is like an optical illusion sometimes). He has enough handle to abuse certain mismatches on the perimeter, but it could use some tightening if he wants to be viable as a pick and roll handler. This would allow him to display more of the playmaking abilities that he showed off at Kansas. If he ever develops even an average jumper, that blows the ceiling off of his potential.
Josh Jackson’s calling card has always been his defense. He has the tools to be an elite defender which is sorely needed next to Booker (Let’s just say Booker is REALLY good on offense). Jackson’s defensive numbers have been less than inspiring but much of that can be attributed to the Suns’ collective offensiveness on defense all year. He is often asked to guard the opposing team’s best player whether he’s a point guard or a power forward. I’ve seen him shut down both James Harden and Anthony Davis for a possession (only one though). Jackson’s got fluid hips that allow him to keep his man in front of him. His quick leaping ability makes up for his lack of wingspan. He reminds me a lot of Shawn Marion who was also tasked with guarding every position. If Jackson can develop some consistency on defense and instincts, he has the potential to be a perennial All-NBA defender.
The NBA has always been a Big 3 league. In order to have championship aspirations, you need AT LEAST three stars. The second one is always the hardest to get. The first one can be drafted or traded for. The third will usually be attracted in free agency by the other two. But the second is a crapshoot. Ever since the end of the Nash Era, the Suns have just been throwing lottery picks at the wall to see what sticks (again, “The Timeline”). They managed to luck into one with Devin Booker, which kicked off Phase 1. They are hoping Josh Jackson can be the second. If his play during the past two months is any indication, Suns fans can expect a bright future.