Josh Jackson’s development marks path to success for Suns

Sep 27, 2018, 8:03 AM | Updated: 9:15 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Josh Gray, left, and Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. reach for a loos...
Phoenix Suns guard Josh Gray, left, and Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. reach for a loose ball along with forward Josh Jackson during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PHOENIX — Josh Jackson estimated he was on set six hours filming a spot for the retail sneaker chain Finish Line. Four of them were spent waiting for Migos — the BET Awards’ best group winners the last two years — to show up.

“What do you expect?” Jackson said as he shrugged on Monday. “It’s alright.”

Watch the ad, and Jackson hardly makes an appearance.

That experience, in a way, parallels his young basketball career, where outside factors have led to wasted time in his development. Similarly, the opportunity to use that as an excuse have rolled off Jackson’s back like raindrops off a drop-top.

The failings by the Suns of late have a lot to do with player development woes that very much involve Jackson. Dumping head coach Earl Watson’s interim tag before the 2017-18 season turned out to be a major setback from the ground level, with Marquese Chriss showing up for his second season out of shape and the then-rookie Jackson taking a half-year to tune in as a professional.

This, after Watson handed Jackson a starting power forward role on opening night that ended up with him guarding All-Star Blake Griffin, who had 50 pounds on him, in the third game of the year. That went about how you’d expect.

Jackson was quickly moved to the bench after Watson got the early ax. A Jan. 2 benching and sit-down with interim coach Jay Triano changed Jackson’s season.

“From that point on, I think we saw a renewed focus in terms of film-watching, being diligent in the weight room, working on his spot-up shooting,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “I thought on a bad team he had a pretty good second half of the year. The game sort of slowed down for him.”

Jackson averaged 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists after the All-Star break, shooting 44 percent overall and 25 percent from three.

Now entering his second season, Jackson will be watched as the proof-in-the-player-development-pudding for the Suns under first-year coach Igor Kokoskov and staff.

He’s a switchy, twitchy wing with elite athleticism and enough ball handling to create with a finger roll, post move or the pick and roll. He’s flashed above-average passing abilities, too.

But it’s his defensive upside combined with his fight-night attitude that must be harnessed for Jackson to ultimately be the wing complement to guard Devin Booker.

“I like being able to say, ‘He didn’t score on me,'” Jackson said. “I take pride in that. So I think my identity for our team this year is just that guy who brings that energy on both ends on the floor.

“I think when I have a lot of energy and my teammates see me get pumped up, it rubs off on them a little bit and we become hard to beat.”

Jackson averaged 1.6 steals per game after the All-Star break, using his length and activity off the ball to jump passing lanes. On the ball, he flashed the ability not only to cocoon advanced ball-handlers but use his instincts to rip the likes of James Harden, C.J. McCollum and Jayson Tatum.

Like any young player, Jackson must take another step forward in terms of team structure and consistency.

Posed about Jackson’s offensive role in all this, Kokoskov didn’t hesitate to reset the conversation.

“You’re talking about the offense, but his main focus should also be defense. In my mind, he can also be a little package of Shawn Marion,” Kokoskov said Monday at the team’s media day. “You know, high energy guy, deflections, steals, activity, competitiveness that he’s got. That’s how he’s built. And go from there. You think about open court, one of the best players in the open court.

“That’s his strength and that’s the challenge he has to understand.”

All that said, Jackson’s offensive identity is untapped. During his rookie year, he implemented a set three-point jumper that looked like it cut out an unneeded extra motion or two on his load-up. When the form was right, it worked.

Jackson, however, shot 26 percent from three, and he wants to improve that into the 30 percent range or better this year.

“He’s slasher, he’s driver … and he’s working hard on his three-point shooting, which in this modern basketball, it’s just necessity,” Kokoskov said. “You have to have it in your pocket. You can’t be cold guy. You can’t be a guy they’re going to shift off you and slow (to) close-out (on).”

Jackson worked on consistency with his form this summer. He wants the same shot on catch-and-shoots and any jumpers off the dribble.

“When you look at some of the best shooters in the league, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry … No matter where they at, they shoot the same shot every time,” Jackson said.

At times last year, Jackson’s release point lacked consistency. It came out differently on turnarounds, step-backs and on catch-and-shot attempts.

Jackson can also take a step forward in terms of efficiency when shooting at the rim.

He converted 58 percent of his attempts there, a relatively low number considering his athleticism. A lot of that had to do with attacking out of control.

But Jackson also had a tendency to avoid contact, like in the play below, where instead of shouldering into the defender, he continues toward the sideline while putting the ball off the glass from a distance.

The 63 percent shooting at the foul stripe is also a concern if he does drive with more success.

Jackson is in a unique spot. He’s aware of his efficiency and like everyone must find his place in Kokoskov’s offense, something that from watching Summer League is a work-in-progress. But at the end of the day, Jackson’s impact will come more in the intangible realm.

“Didn’t really work out too much, I think I could’ve played a little bit better. Then again, it’s Summer League,” he said. “What I really tried to do, what I really tried to focus on, is be a leader because I thought that was a little bit more of a role I would step into this year.

“Every time you see me, be that guy who’s got energy. Be excited, happy, clapping, motivate your guys.”

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