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The numbers show Josh Jackson’s elite traits on defense are translating quicker than expected

Jackson has had his share of struggles, but his defense seems well on its way to being his forte in the pros.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A quarter of the way through Josh Jackson’s rookie season, we have seen lots of things the 20-year-old forward will need more refinement on than we expected, but some areas have displayed his salivating two-way potential if he becomes a consistent threat on offense.

During the pre-draft process, Jackson showed off a tenacity on the defensive end many scouts haven’t seen in awhile. His relentless motor is what won over many executives, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski told me in our one-on-one podcast prior to the Suns’ season beginning.

And for other rookies, especially wings like Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, OG Anunoby, and even Ben Simmons, Jackson was placed on a pedestal for his elite defensive traits. His quick-twitch ability on steals, leading to extra possessions and in transition was one area that really stood out while Jackson was playing for Kansas.

Over his last 15, Jackson had the best defensive field goal percentage for all wings by a good margin at 37.8-percent, while showing some awesome capabilities of lockdown defense against the likes of Jamal Crawford and James Harden on some possessions.

Wings that have averaged 15 or more minutes per game while carrying a steal percentage above 20 with block and rebound percentages above 10, including a non-negative defensive win share are Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gay, Otto Porter Jr., Caris LeVert, Justise Winslow, Robert Covington, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Simmons, and Jackson.

As you can see, Jackson is the only rookie alongside Simmons to be this active on the defensive end thus far. Both Phoenix and Philadelphia have placed a responsibility on their young wings to defend the league’s best such as Blake Griffin, LeBron James, etc. For these young guys to have this much responsibility is rare, but, especially in Phoenix’s case, they would be disastrous without a motor on defense that Jackson has flashed.

When looking at comparables to Jackson so far, I compiled a list of small forwards with above-average steal percentages that maintained throughout their primes or currently are. Those names are Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Shawn Marion, Gerald Wallace, and Ron Artest.

For a team with two offensive-dominant wings in Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, placing Jackson’s potential alongside that of a clamp-down type who can also give you scoring punch seems realistic at the moment.

If Jackson is able to be like those aforementioned three, that’s provided a unique fit onto this roster. Obtaining such a perimeter piece that could go on to consistently average 16-20 points plus two steals and a block per game? Sign me up, because I think that really could be the ceiling we see with Jackson seeing how general manager Ryan McDonough has laid groundwork to build around Booker as the main pillar.

The only players logging 20 or more minutes a game with a steal percentage of 40% or above are Chris Paul, Kris Dunn, and Josh Jackson. Paul has steadily been near or at the top of these lists, while Dunn has had a resurgent bounce back year after being sent alongside Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen in the Butler deal during the draft. For Jackson to already be on this list is impressive, to say the least, and gives us a sneak peek into his overall potential on that end.

Meanwhile, the only wings in the past decade to maintain a +30 steal% in their rookie seasons? Only three have and those names are Kawhi Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Paul George.

Pretty good company through his quarterly report, I should say.

Another impressive stat for the former Kansas Jayhawk to be apart of is him being one of only two rookies with +30stl%, +10blk%, +20mpg joining only Simmons. Philadelphia’s main piece will be spoken of more as their core has begun to take the step towards the playoffs. Phoenix with Booker, Jackson, and Warren is likely another season away from making their way up the Western Conference hierarchy.

Jackson’s current steal percentage of 40.7-percent would be the highest recorded total for a forward playing at or above 20 minutes per game in the NBA stats database if it's maintained, so his active hands and instinctual gambles have paid dividends early on. His knack for reading plays like a free safety in football has caught my eye (the former football player in me says this) and that defensive centerpiece outlook will surely look to blossom as we look back at the halfway point.

Per 36 minutes, Jackson has seen his turnover problems plague him to this point but still averaging a stat line of 15-6-2, adding two steals and nearly a block as well. Once he starts to find his footing and find a consistent shooting stroke, which has tallied up to an abysmal 39-25-52 split, he should turn into the two-way weapon needs to deploy alongside Booker for hopefully the next decade.

When looking back on what McDonough had to say right after selecting Jackson, he really believes once he finds an offensive identity that a collision course to stardom is incoming.

“We thought Josh Jackson was the best player in the draft, and people say, “Well, he’s the best two-way player.” Last I checked, the game is played two ways, you don’t just play one,” McDonough said back in June. “We really like Josh, his talents. We really love his fit with our roster. I think if you look at the entire draft class, and obviously, I’m biased, but every team’s roster and which player in this draft fits a specific team the best, we think the fit with Josh Jackson to the Phoenix Suns is perfect. We think with him and Devin Booker, and TJ Warren, we have three of the better young wings in the league. We think Josh’s defensive ability and athleticism, his length, his passing ability all really complement two very talented offensive wings in Devin and TJ. And we love his competitiveness, we love his fire, we love his toughness.”

If Booker and Warren become a dynamic one-two punch on offense while Jackson becomes an Artest-like prospect in terms of motor and defensive ability would be a perfect plan to follow. And if Jackson hits his full two-way ceiling, then this really could become a troublesome trio for teams to lock down.

In the annual NBA GM survey, executives ranked Jackson as the most likely to be the best player out of the 2017 draft class at 24-percent. Even though he is having some rookie growing pains now, don’t overlook the flashes we have seen out of who many believed would be the best defender down the line.

Note: Jackson’s stats for this story were compiled prior to Sunday’s game against Minnesota on NBA.stats.com