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Why the Josh Jackson rookie hype might be tepid

When the Phoenix Suns drafted Josh Jackson this summer, they did to get the best player not just the best individual scorer.

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are counting on a big year from rookie Josh Jackson, a player known for constant hustle that fills the sheet across the board from points to assists, rebounds, steals and blocks. Jackson doesn’t have a refined overall offensive game, though, which might limit his chances at the Rookie of the Year Award.

The 4th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft has been a slightly polarizing prospect throughout the draft process. Everyone had him in the Top 10, with the vast majority placing him among the Top 5 in a deep draft.

The polarizing aspect to his scouting reports was how translatable his motor could be to the NBA as a difference-making skill while the rest of his NBA game develops. Jackson is one of the most athletic players in the draft, but at 6’8”, 200 lbs. is not big enough to spend a lot of NBA time as a small-ball power forward against bigger, more athletic competition. Some scouts saw that as a red flag for making it big in the NBA, and dropped Jackson to the mid-lottery on their boards. Other teams, including the Suns, believed Jackson was just too good a prospect to pass when their turn came on the board, even if that had been the #1 overall pick.

The major questions on Jackson are his ability to score in the half court (he has a major hitch in his shot) and that his length (6’11” wingspan) is only ordinary for a wing defender, let alone a big man. His great college season at Kansas spent almost primarily as the power forward in Bill Self’s system.

Have players with Jackson’s measurements succeeded at the power forward spot in the past? Yes, but you can count the All-NBA successes in one hand. Multi-time All-Star Shawn Marion had a similar body type to Jackson, and he played a ton of power forward for the Suns. Draymond Green is only slightly thicker than Jackson, but just as quick and has a longer wingspan.

In fact, some scouts believe Jackson will slide more easily between shooting guard and small forward throughout his career than he will to the power forward spot. If that’s the case, his physical measurements and athleticism won’t stand out quite as clearly over the rest of the NBA wings.

What could we reasonably expect from the 20-year old Jackson in his rookie season, given his lack of a clear NBA scoring skillset (like Jayson Tatum in Boston or Markelle Fultz in Philadelphia)?

Let’s take a look at three recent rookies who profiled similarly to Jackson coming out of college: Jaylen Brown (Celtics), Stanley Johnson (Pistons) and Justise Winslow (Heat).

All were taken in the mid-to-high lottery with the same expectations: become a lock-down defender at the small forward position with enough quicks to handle shooting guards and enough strength to spot minutes at power forward, depending on lineups and opponents. And on offense, just cut to the basket and root for garbage buckets.

All three played considerably as rookies, though they got few starts between them as they played for much more successful teams than the Suns will be. Each played for a team pushing for playoff positioning, which likely suppressed their statistical potential as rookies.

Jackson’s advantage over them will be not only minutes per game, but also opportunity on the offensive end (usage rate) during those minutes. Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe will get the lion’s share of shots, with everyone else getting their shots as part of the offense or as a tertiary weapon when the primary options break down.

Jackson may also get to initiate offense, something none of the three aforementioned had in their rookie arsenal.

But despite those differences in opportunity and ball-handling, I use these recent examples to temper expectations on Josh Jackson.

Rookies get recognition for scoring and loading up the box score. Draftees like Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz will get the Sportscenter headlines for scoring binges, while Lonzo Ball will make every highlight reel with his passing. Jackson will rarely be highlighted on the nightly sports recaps, even by the local news teams.

Defense means little when it comes to national coverage, except in the form of “I love that guy” buried in the middle of a long article on someone else. There’s a lot of love for guys like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson, but only after mentioning the heavy hitters like Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Kristaps Porzingis.

The Suns NEED Josh Jackson exactly the way he is. They NEED someone like a new-age Shawn Marion, Draymond Green, Tayshawn Prince who can defend multiple positions and rotate effectively on a single possession from the top of the key to the rim. They NEED the Josh Jackson who’s been advertised.

Just don’t be surprised when, unless he suddenly becomes a fully-formed Jimmy Butler as a rookie, Jackson gets ranked lower on rookie grading scales than Suns fans might like.

The Suns benefitted from the scoring bias of voters two years ago when Devin Booker burst onto the scene and stole the rookie spotlight.

They just might not like the other side of that same coin when it comes to Jackson’s likely 25 MPG stat line of 9/5/2 on 40% shooting not getting enough All-Rookie publicity.