Maturity the biggest difference in Phoenix Suns rookie Josh Jackson

Mar 2, 2018, 8:52 AM | Updated: 3:28 pm

Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson (20) prepares to shoot against Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell M...

Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson (20) prepares to shoot against Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin (1) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

PHOENIX – Though it likely will go down as their worst month of the season, the Phoenix Suns may look back at February 2018 as the month rookie forward Josh Jackson came into his own as an NBA player.

Yes, his numbers were good — more on that later — but Jackson’s improvement over the last month, month-plus, goes beyond just points, rebounds and assists.

It’s his decision-making, on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, Jackson is no longer playing at a “frenetic pace” in the words of interim head coach Jay Triano. He’s learned to pick his spots; when to attack the basket, when to pull-up or pull-back and when to make the extra pass.

Defensively, Jackson’s versatility has given Triano options: Put him on a smaller guard where Jackson’s quickness and 7-foot wingspan allows him to keep the ball handler in front of him or put him on bigger forward/center where Jackson is athletic enough to hold his own (for the most part) as was the case at New Orleans against Anthony Davis and then at Memphis against Marc Gasol; the latter of whom had his shot blocked by Jackson in the low post.

“It was kind of fun,” Jackson said of playing center, before adding with a smile, “I felt like I didn’t have to run as much. I could just chill under the basket a little bit.”

Of course, with starting center Tyson Chandler injured, plus forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss getting into foul trouble recently, the Suns have had to turn to Jackson more to defend players who may be bigger and stronger.

On Thursday, Chandler said Jackson was “all over the place” in the win over the Grizzlies “kind of disrupting things and making the offense second guess which is what I see for him in the future.

“I think he has the potential to be an incredible defender. I envision him, some years down the road, being on an all-defensive team because he has that kind of potential, that kind of timing and just natural gifts to be able to do it,” Chandler continued.

It could be argued Jackson had his best overall game as a pro in Memphis. He finished with a career-high 29 points, shooting 9-of-16 from the field and 10-of-13 from the foul line, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks in 40 minutes.

According to Triano, Jackson “just seems to be really locked in.”

That it’s taken nearly the entire season for Jackson to figure things out should not come with any alarm bells.

“What you’re seeing over the last couple of games and the last couple of weeks in this stretch is just his maturity and the game, him starting to be able to understand a little better,” Chandler said. “When you first come in, you’re just trying to figure it out. Eyes wide open. But, I think now for him, the game is slowing a little bit and now he’s starting being able to put, like, his presence on the floor and the reason why he was drafted where he was drafted.”

The Suns made Jackson the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. And with that comes expectations. Expectations that were not met initially.

Sure, Jackson flashed early but nothing consistently.

“At the start of the season I didn’t play too great. I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “It was really good for me to go out there and be able to make those mistakes just because I feel like I learned from them.”

And that right there is the most-telling sign of Jackson’s development on the court. He’s not making the same mistake twice.

The experiences Jackson had in October, November and December have paid dividends in January and February.

“There’s times and there’s plays where you just know what to do and you know what not to do just because you’ve been in that position before,” he said.

In addition to the game slowing down, Triano pointed to Jackson’s familiarity with his teammates and vice versa. There’s now a comfort level with one another and thus better chemistry which has translated to better production.

“I think he’s trusting his teammates more and his teammates are trusting him more,” Triano said. “At the beginning, we weren’t really sure what he was going to do and I think it’s just us becoming more familiar with him and his teammates becoming more familiar with him.”

Now about those February numbers.

Jackson averaged 17.7 points (2nd among rookies), 6.5 rebounds (8th) and 1.09 blocks (2nd) in 11 games, including seven starts. He became the first rookie to average at least these amounts in these categories for a calendar month since Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in January 2017.

Overall, Jackson ranks seventh among rookies with 11.7 points per game and 10th with 4.3 rebounds per game.

“I haven’t paid too much attention but I know I’ve been doing pretty good,” he said of his numbers. “Hopefully, I can keep it up.”

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