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Jaren Jackson Jr. is currently rated as the #4 prospect by ESPN. He is perceived as more of an elite role player than a true star with the upside of Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton, so let’s explore the validity of this narrative.

Physical Profile

JJJ measured 6’10” with a 7’4″ wingspan at Nike Hoop Summit at age 17, and he complements his strong dimensions with great mobility and athleticism. He is currently a bit skinny, but he has a nice frame that should fill out in time.

The only real flaw with his tools is that he’s not elite athletically, as he is more explosive in space than in traffic. But for an elite shot blocker, he covers a ton of ground defensively.

JJJ has a unique ability to both protect the rim and switch onto the perimeter. His physical profile is overall excellent, as it gives him endless defensive upside.

Skill Level

It’s difficult to predict NBA shooting from a small sample of stats, but JJJ’s shooting indicators are excellent for an 18 year old big. He shot 40% from 3 and 80% FT in a smallish NCAA sample and 40% on 84 3PA pre-NCAA according to DraftExpress (RIP).

His form is a slightly awkward push shot so these percentages should be taken with a grain of salt. But he also has a reasonably quick release, and there is some chance that he is a legitimately good shooter.

It remains to be seen how well he shoots from NBA 3 range.  But for a big with JJJ’s tools, having even a serviceable shot is highly valuable.

Further, he shows budding ball skills as he can attack from the perimeter off the dribble with surprising shiftiness and a good first step. He is still raw and often turned it over when he tried to attack, but his slashing potential is elite for an 18 year old big.

It’s hard to predict where his skill level will peak on the scale of decent to great, but he has rare skill potential for a toolsy, defensive minded big.

IQ and Instincts

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This past season Michigan State was nearly impossible to score on inside the arc, posting by far the best defensive 2P% in the NCAA. Here’s how they compared to stingiest interiors in kenpom’s database going back to 2002:

Year Team Def 2P% NCAA Avg Difference
2018 Michigan St. 38.4% 50.0% 11.6%
2015 Texas 37.7% 47.8% 10.1%
2017 UCF 39.9% 49.3% 9.4%
2004 Uconn 38.7% 48.0% 9.3%
2014 UC Irvine 39.2% 48.5% 9.3%

Texas boasted Myles Turner and fringe big prospects Cam Ridley, Prince Ibeh, and Jonathan Holmes. UCF and UC Irvine each had a 7’6″ big against mid-major schedules.  UConn had four (!!!) first round bigs: Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong.

All of these past outliers had some unique interior presence(s), and Michigan State is by far the biggest outlier of the bunch. Their performance can in part be attributed to a wealth of quality bigs and never gambling for turnovers, but JJJ was the clear star of the show accounting for 42% of the team’s blocks. And unlike these other defenses being anchored largely by giant statues, JJJ is actually able to defend the perimeter as he led his team in steal rate.

Much of his dominance was due to his his tremendous close out speed, but these indicators are decisively positive indicators for his IQ. He has sharp instincts, excellent timing on blocks, and appears to be an intelligent defensive player who rarely yielded quality shot attempts near the rim.

Given that individual stats, team stats, and the eye test all paint a favorable picture for JJJ, optimism for his basketball IQ is warranted. But he was not perfect, as he was foul prone on defense and turnover prone on offense. And his rebound rate was slightly underwhelming, so there is no guarantee that he is cerebrally elite.

Perhaps the fouls and turnovers are a product of youth that will become a distant memory with more experience, or maybe they indicate some flaw that will never fully go away. Maybe the rebounds were a product of playing in a supersized lineup with a not yet developed frame, or maybe his toughness and motor are slightly lacking. These questions are difficult to answer with any confidence.

To some extent we are guessing how intelligent and instinctual a player is based on limited information. This is a major part of the variance in draft predictions. But in JJJ’s case we have a unique clue to work with: his father’s NBA career

Chip Off the Old Block?

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Jaren Jackson Sr. didn’t even start in his first three seasons at Georgetown, averaging 7, 11, and 18 minutes per game respectively. As a senior he finally averaged 27 minutes and cracked double digit scoring for the first time to finish his 4 year career with averages of 16.5 minutes, 7.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.2 assists.

Then he unsurprisingly went undrafted, and did not play more than garbage minutes in his first 7 NBA seasons. At age 29, he finally earned his first consistent rotation role playing 15 mins/game for Washington.

Then Jackson moved on to San Antonio where he became a part-time starter for  3 years, and played a significant role in their 1999 championship run. He brought almost nothing to the table outside of shooting and defense, but he did so effectively, as he rated as slightly positive by both BPM and RAPM metrics as one of the original 3 + D role players.

At 6’4″ with limited athleticism and skill, Jackson is one of the least talented players to ever become useful in the NBA. He couldn’t get real minutes in college, couldn’t get drafted, and couldn’t get real NBA minutes for 7 years, but he nevertheless found a way to positively contribute to a champion.

Jaren Sr. must have had subtle but significant cerebral and intangible advantages that the basketball world failed to discern until he crossed paths with Gregg Popovich.

What Does This Mean For Jaren Jr.?

While there is no guarantee that Jaren Jr. shares these advantages, he should be considered more likely than average to have the overachiever gene. After all, 50% of his genetics came from a extreme overachiever at professional basketball. And the other half of his genes came from a basketball mom, making him 7″ taller, more athletic, and more skilled than his dad.

Even without considering his father’s career, JJJ is legitimate candidate for #1 overall. If this point has no bearing on his career, he can easily be a perennial all-star similar to Chris Bosh. And if he overachieves as much as his father did, he has potential to be a Kevin Garnett level generational star.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much weight should be given to Jaren Sr’s career, but it is a nice cherry on top of a highly attractive profile. If it carries any serious gravity, the payoff for drafting JJJ will be immense.

I believe it is correct to place some positive skew on JJJ’s range of outcomes based on his genetics. If nothing else it is yet another positive point to add to the endless list of reasons to be optimistic for his NBA future.

Bottom Line

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JJJ is not excellent athletically like Ayton nor is he skilled as Doncic, but he has a nice blend of both on top of possibly elite IQ and intangibles. His talent level is excellent and highly underrated.

It makes sense that he would be underrated, as IQ and youth are commonly overlooked and he is among the youngest and smartest players in this draft.

And to cap it off he doesn’t have any frightening warts. His shooting form is slightly funky, and there is some dependence on him progressing his somewhat raw skills at a reasonable rate. But compare that with the flaws of other recent elite prospects

DeAndre Ayton– Appears to be completely lost on defense
Luka Doncic– Lacks burst + shake to get past defense, will rely heavily on shotmaking as pro
Lonzo Ball— Major flags in his handling and shooting for a guard who is non-elite athlete
Markelle Fultz— Shaky FT% and his NCAA team was awful
Ben Simmons— Broken shot, awful NCAA team, intangible flags
Karl-Anthony Towns— Too slow to be good defensively
Joel Embiid— Major health concerns. Also late basketball starting age may inhibit his ability to score efficiently as a pro the same way it is difficult to learn a second language if you do not start as a child

JJJ arguably has the least off-putting warts of the group. And his team defense and genetics are compelling reasons to be optimistic for his NBA upside. From almost every angle of analysis, he is dripping with goodness.

Ultimately I rate Jaren Jackson Jr. as the best prospect of the past 6 years. It’s not by a big margin, as Luka Doncic could also be argued to be the best recent prospect and Ayton is not that far behind either.  But JJJ at least belongs in the #1 conversation, and letting him slide out of the top 3 would be nothing short of a historic draft blunder.

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