Everyone assumes the Celtics will take Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 pick in the draft . . . but what if they don't? What if they turn to another of the prospects? This week, we'll look at some of the players who might interest the Celtics in that 'What if?' scenario: TODAY: Kansas' Josh Jackson
BOSTON -- No matter who you talk to in NBA circles, all agree that Kansas’ Josh Jackson is among the best athletes in this year’s draft.
Going all the way back to his days as a high school star -- you know, like a year ago -- he was viewed as a player with two-way standout potential at the NBA level.
And in his lone season at Kansas, Jackson’s ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor was undeniable.
While all indications remain strong that the Celtics will go with Markelle Fultz with the top overall pick, it’s understandable if they give some consideration to selecting Jackson with the top overall pick.
INSTEAD OF FULTZ, WHAT IF CELTICS DRAFT . . .
“He’s the best athlete in this draft. It’s not even close really,” a Western Conference executive told CSNNE.com recently. “There are guys you watch in college and see . . . they just play at a different gear, a higher gear, a different level than most of the guys on the floor. That’s Josh."
The executive added: “And remember, he played in one of the better conferences so it wasn’t like he wasn’t facing quality competition on a nightly basis.”
What I like most about Jackson is his versatility as a perimeter defender with the kind of ranginess that gives coach Brad Stevens yet another wrinkle to throw at teams. Like most young guys, he needs to get stronger. And his offensive game needs work. But the ability to play more than one position, and the edge that he plays with most nights, makes him one of the few players in the draft you can project without a ton of thought. He's someone who could see playing time early on with the Celtics without making that two-hour trek up Route 95 to Portland for a Gatorade League assignment with the Maine Red Claws.
Once you get past his athleticism, his feel for the game really stands out. The Jayhawks used him a lot at the power-forward position and to his credit, he did more than just use his quickness to make an impact. Teams tried to sag off him and allow him to shoot. Instead of forcing shots, he simply attacked the defense, forced them to react, and found teammates open for easy baskets or made the “hockey assist,” which factored in Kansas being among the most efficient offenses in all of college basketball last season. And while no one would consider Jackson a knock-down shooter, he did connect on 37.8 percent of his 3’s last season while making 54.9 percent of his 2-point shots as part of a 16.3 points-per-game scoring average. One of the reasons Kansas played him at power forward was because of his rebounding ability at both ends of the court. And with solid ball-handling skills, he can initiate fast-break opportunities by himself while showing off passing skills that are equally effective with both his left and right hand. And when in half-court sets he moves well without the ball, and does a good job of attacking close-outs. Again, there’s a lot to like about Jackson at this level.
As mentioned earlier, he spent a lot of time playing power forward at Kansas and put up solid numbers. But he’ll have to guard 2’s (shooting guards) and 3’s (small forwards) in the NBA whose athleticism will be closer to his own. Because there’s such a small sample size from his time at Kansas where he has had to guard similar-sized wing players, there’s an element of uncertainty as to whether he can be as impactful defensively in the NBA. His shooting numbers were decent but his mechanics really need some refining. More than anything else, his form seems to change from one shot to the next. This was particularly noticeable at the free-throw line, where he shot just 56.6 percent. He’s not expected to be much of a 3-point threat in the NBA, so he needs to develop a more reliable mid-range game especially as the primary ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets. And while you love guys who play with passion and intensity, Jackson has at times let his emotions get the best of him while picking up silly fouls and, more important, getting the kind of attention from officials that no player wants.
Jackson is far from a finished product, but he has the kind of skills that you could see potentially helping sooner rather than late for the Celtics. The challenge for Boston with anyone selected in the first round is minutes. Jackson can play on the perimeter because of his defense. But with perimeter stalwarts like Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder along with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown off the bench, you have to wonder how much playing time (if any) Jackson would get with the Celtics. There are benefits to watching more seasoned players on the floor, obviously. But Jackson is one of the players in this draft class who needs to play, in part because of what he can bring to the floor from a defensive standpoint . . . which for most teams at least, would all but assure him court time early on in his career. But as we know, the Celtics are indeed unique; they're considered one of the better teams in the NBA, and are surrounded in their draft location by clubs either at the starting blocks or in the middle of rebuilding.