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Josh Jackson’s rookie season full of ups, downs for Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns guard Josh Jackson (20) goes up for a dunk against the Houston Rockets in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 30, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/George Bridges)

It was a tale of two halves for Phoenix Suns rookie and No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson in his debut season.

Nearing the halfway point in Jackson’s rookie campaign for the Suns, his poor play led to fears around his inefficiencies and potentially broken jumper. But, with the rest of the season left after that point, Jackson made major strides and improved, showing he can be a scoring force in the NBA, even as a rookie.

Here is a look at the major points of Jackson’s first year in the NBA.

Hitting the rookie wall early

After Jackson had played 33 games, The Ringer named him one of the least efficient players in the NBA at that moment.

Jackson was averaging 9.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and one assist a game. In 22.4 minutes a game, the rookie out of Kansas had an average plus-minus of -7.45.

Jackson’s shooting numbers were awful. He was shooting just 37.7 percent from the field, 22.5 percent from behind the arc and 57 percent from the free throw line.

Perhaps even worst of all, Jackson was shooting 53.1 percent around the rim, which per The Ringer was “over 10 percentage points lower than the league average.”

“At the start of the season, I didn’t play too great. I made a lot of mistakes,” Jackson said in March. “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.”

The tipping point

And learn from those mistakes he did, but not without the advice of one of his coaches that jump-started the process.

“We sat down and talked and I said, ‘I don’t have a lot of confidence in you right now. You’re playing fast. You’re doing what we want you to do, but you’re supposed to be a defender and I think you’re trying to score,’” Suns interim head coach Jay Triano told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station in January.

In the next game after that conversation, Triano did not play Jackson a single minute against the Atlanta Hawks. Jackson, however, followed that game with four straight double-digit performances, including a 17-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game against the Oklahoma City Thunder where the forward was a plus-34.

Jackson believed he was playing too fast at the beginning of the season, but now he was starting to slow it down, find his rhythm and see more of the court.

“I think I played a little bit slower tonight. I think a lot of the time I get going a little too fast and get out of control a little bit and it’s hard for me to look around and make decisions,” Jackson said in January.

While the team continued to struggle just as they did in the first 33 games and Jackson’s impact in the plus-minus category was pretty much identical (-7.5), his numbers started to really see an improvement.

After the 33 game mark, Jackson started getting five more minutes a game (27.7) while averaging 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists a game in this period.

Even though the Suns’ rookie shooting numbers aren’t incredible, they did show a great deal of improvement as well.

Jackson shot 43.7 percent from the field in his final stretch while also having better numbers in every other shooting category too. With plenty of work still to go, Jackson’s three-point percentage during this time was 28.5 percent and he was shooting 67 percent from the free throw line. Still, it was progress.

Since the end of December, Jackson also shot 61.5 percent around the rim, improving one of the most troubling statistics of his early-season struggles.

Post-trade deadline success with Elfrid Payton

Another significant point in the Suns’ season and Jackson’s rookie year is when Phoenix traded for point guard Elfrid Payton.

At the trade deadline, the Suns sent a 2018 second-round pick to the Orlando Magic. The Suns were trying to fill their hole at the point guard position and see if Payton could possibly be the answer for the future.

While Payton didn’t turn out to be that, Jackson clearly benefitted playing with Payton and also being used as the team’s primary scoring option when Devin Booker and T.J. Warren were out with injuries.

Jackson played his best ball after the trade deadline, scoring 18.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals a game for the rest of the season.

How does Jackson compare to other rookies?

While Jackson struggled at the beginning of the season and other rookies such as Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma took the league by storm, Jackson is actually much closer to the competition than some might think.

For the entire season, Jackson ranked in the top-10 among rookies in scoring (seventh), rebounding (ninth), steals (tied for fourth) and double-doubles (ninth).

Since the start of new year, though, Jackson finished second in scoring among rookies at 17.2 points per a game. The only player in front of Jackson was Mitchell, who scored 22.3 points per game. With Jackson picking up his game in 2018, scoring more than some heralded rookies like Dennis Smith Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Ben Simmons and Kuzma, any calls early in the season of him not being worthy of a top-5 pick were put to rest.

What’s the future look like at small forward?

Jackson had success as both a starter and a reserve, leading to a question of the team needing to figure out whether they believe Jackson and Warren can co-exist on the same team alongside Booker.

Warren’s plus-minus on the court with Booker is slightly better (1.8 points better) than Jackson.

When Jackson and Warren are both on the court at the same time, they post the second worst plus-minus at -15.5, only 0.1 better than the worst two-man combination of Jackson and Troy Daniels.

Like The Ringer said in its early critique of Jackson, there may not be enough room on the court for the two of them.

Playing two non-shooting wings at the same time is a losing proposition. There’s not enough room on the court to operate.

Warren has shot 28.3 percent from deep throughout his four-year career and making matters even worse, he shot a career-low 22.2 percent this season. Jackson’s underwhelming 26.3 percent this year doesn’t make the pairing seem any more optimistic.

It’s a question the Suns will have to answer eventually.

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