Despite growing pains, Suns rookie Jackson shows upside
PHOENIX — To say Phoenix Suns rookie forward Josh Jackson had an eventful start to his rookie career would be an understatement.
After finishing one year at Kansas, Jackson was selected by the Suns with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Since joining the team for training camp in September, he saw Earl Watson fired and replaced by interim coach Jay Triano, played his first-ever regular season NBA game in a record-setting opening loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, paid a $35,000 fine for mimicking a “shooting motion” at a Los Angeles Clippers fan and was moved from starter to bench player after just three games.
Asked how he has traversed through his first handful of NBA games, he said he has made an active effort to listen to as much advice, and criticism, as possible.
He said one of his main influencers has been his mother, Apples Jones, who averaged over 15 points a game playing college basketball at Texas-El Paso in 1992.
“Growing up as a kid, she was the one who really got me around the game, got me playing, he said.“She played a huge part in my development as a player, taught me a lot of things. Still to this day, she teaches me a lot of things on the court.”
Asked what she has told him recently in his NBA career, Jackson said much of the advice consists of simply helping him improve his game.
“A lot of people get caught up in the lifestyle a little bit, and tend to lose focus on what it’s really about: coming in every day and just be focused,” he said.
Triano, in his limited time as the head man for the team, said Jackson has been extremely receptive to coaching and criticism.
In Triano’s eyes, Jackson still has a lot of room to grow with the team and new system based on the potential Phoenix’s staff saw in him out of Kansas.
“One of the talks I had with him individually was the fact that he was drafted to be a slasher and a defender, and we haven’t really seen it yet, and now we want to see it,” he said.
Despite some of these growing pains, Jackson is among the leaders in rookie points (9.9),minutes (23.4), and steals (1.4) per game.
Before the season started, while coaches and players took the stage for Suns Media Day, then-coach Watson said many of Jackson’s skills and personal traits began to develop early, when Jackson started playing chess at a young age, relating the strategy of the game to how he observes the floor.
“You have to see moves before they happen and transcend through basketball, and I think that’s how he’s able to control the game of basketball with his talents,” Watson said.
Jackson began leading peers when he started a chess club at school in the third grade. Relating it to basketball, and a career in the NBA, he said that giving up pieces to gain optimal position on the board is much like the sacrifice he has to make to fit in on a professional roster.
One of those sacrifices has come in his role on the team. In Jackson’s first three games, he started, with Watson choosing to go with a smaller starting lineup. Since Triano took over, the team has moved to a more-traditional starting five, with Marquese Chriss at the power forward spot. Though the change has played a part in the team’s 4-1 record in Triano’s first five games, it has moved Jackson to a substitute role.
“He’s embraced coming off the bench, which is a real nice sacrifice for a player to make,” Triano said.
Jackson said that playing on the bench is not a hindrance to his game and actually gives him the opportunity to play more at the small forward where he played in college and has seen the most success in his NBA career.
“Coming into the NBA, trying to play the 4, where I’m guarding guys like Blake Griffin, trying to rebound with DeAndre Jordan, it’s kind of hard for myself,” he said. “So I’ve just got to come in and try to be somewhere for myself where I’m comfortable, which is the 3 position.”
Entering the league, Jackson said he did not want to “step on anyone’s feet,” or make too large of an impression, seemingly content to just play a role and fit into Phoenix’s system. However, he now says he challenges somebody, sometimes multiple people, in practice and game preparation each day.
“Watching him in pick-up, when something happens, he takes it out on the opponent,” veteran center Tyson Chandler said. “He takes it out within the game, and that’s the sign of a really good player. Because if you can find motivation in this game, and you have it in you naturally, you have a future.”