The Phoenix Suns have had a difficult season.
When the present is ugly - 19-53, worst record in the league, worst point differential, most 40-point losses... — the future of the franchise becomes the focus. Because the future just HAS to get better, right?
For the Suns to start that rise out of the ashes, on a trajectory that has more staying power than a single season, they need to solidify a “big three” of the timeline, and then swap out some of the rest of the kids for quality big-minutes veteran or two to solidify the rotation.
One part of the “big three” is already in place: 21 year old Devin Booker (24.9 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5. rebounds, 50.1% eFG), who is one of only five players in the NBA players posting at least a 24/4.5/4.5/50 stat line this year, a stat line that’s only posted by a handful of players each year. James Harden and Stephen Curry are the only other guards who fit that category. Dropping the effective field goal percentage adds Russell Westbrook to the list.
That’s a nice short list on which Devin Booker belongs. He’s a future All-Star waiting to happen. Maybe as early as next year.
But who will join him in the “big three”?
Jackson vs. Goodwin
Okay, let me get this out of the way. I’ve taken some heat recently for even suggesting that Josh Jackson might not earn a rookie extension from the Suns. I’m not saying he WON’T. I never said that. I absolutely think he WILL earn that extension.
I just said it’s conceivable that he won’t if he hasn’t improved as a player from who he is right now.
What am I basing that on?
Look at this comp.
Here’s Archie Goodwin’s third season with the Suns, compared to Jackson’s rookie year, on a per-36 basis.
Not a lot of difference, statistically.
How about stylistically? Both play out of control at times, have a tremendous hitch in their jumper, and mix exciting plays with head scratchers. Archie was three inches shorter, but had the same wingspan (6’10”). Both were sieves on defense.
Jackson definitely has a higher ceiling than Goodwin ever did, but if you were around these here parts in 2013-15, you’ll remember how many of us thought Goodwin could be an All-Star someday if he could just straighten out that jumper. I personally remember trying to get assistant coach Mike Longabardi to admit as much, ahead of Goodwin’s second summer league stint in 2014. Longabardi said only that Goodwin could someday work himself into being a good rotation player.
Let’s watch some tape. Here’s highlights of Goodwin’s best game as a pro, in his fourth year. Does he look familiar to you?
Now here’s Josh Jackson’s best game as a pro so far, with 36 points against Golden State.
Here’s coach Jay Triano on the trouble with having Josh as the #1 scoring option.
“He doesn’t have a distinct way of scoring yet,” Triano said. “It’s just kind of everything like hard drives to the basket, so it’s hard to run plays and sets for him unless we get him off a quick pin, but teams are going to gear up for him now that he’s not a surprise anymore with the way that he’s playing.”
Again, I think Jackson is a much better player than Archie, but man you have to admit there are some similarities.
I hope, I hope, I hope, I get lambasted for years over this silly comp - it IS silly, I know it is - because if I get roasted for this over the years that means Jackson has become a really good player.
But for right now, if you watch those two highlight reels, you’ll see what I mean that Jackson has a ways to go to be a really good player.
Jackson’s turning point
The biggest difference between Jackson and Goodwin, though, is their coachability.
That Goodwin highlight reel was in year four for Goodwin, three months before being released and failing to find a long-term spot on any other team after that.
Jackson’s was in his rookie season - a season in which he’s made great strides in terms of consistency, despite not yet having any go-to moves besides transition.
Josh Jackson, the exciting 4th overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, knew he was struggling to adjust to the NBA game where most players are just as athletic, and most of them are stronger than he is. He needed to figure out how to do the fun things like score, while also impacting the rest of the game.
But he just couldn’t find his rhythm, and soon he was losing minutes in the rotation while skeptics questioned his talent level. He had played less than 13 minutes in each of the Suns last three games before being benched entirely on January 2, 2018 for a game.
“I want to give thanks to coach Triano,” Jackson said to Evan Sidery on an exclusive with Bright Side. “For bringing me in, watching film, and telling me the things to focus on.”
Triano knew that players want to score in this league, but showed Jackson how it takes all facets to get those scores. Offensive rebounding gives you putbacks. Defensive stops - steals, blocks, rebounds - give you fast breaks. They watched film. Lots and lots of film. Breaking down how the game unfolds.
Since then, Jackson has been a new player.
Before being sat down, he was seventh in scoring on the team at 9.0 points per game, grabbing less than 4 rebounds and sporting a 1:1.7 assist/turnover ratio. He was playing out of control with a lack of focus, until Triano and the rest of the organization reached Jackson and helped him find his focus to the NBA.
Since being sat down, Jackson is second on the team in points per possession (.271) and top-three in field goals and free throws per possession.
Overall, he’s putting up third-best 16 points (45% shooting), 5.5 rebounds, 1:1 assists/turnover margin, and almost a block and a steal per game since that fateful benching.
“Could be a fluke, could be he got the message,” said coach Triano of that day in early January. “I don’t want to take any credit for that. I mean, I sat down and talked to him and told him how I felt, which a coach and player should do. I’ve done that with guys on a regular basis throughout the year.”
“Ryan and James Jones were involved in a conversation with him at the same time,” Triano continued. “It was our team, addressing something that we didn’t like the way it was going. And since that point, he’s been very focused and dialed in.”
True. He says he’s done that many times over with Marquese Chriss, for example, but with lesser effect. Chriss is a year younger than Jackson, but still the the two players are showing you who’s more coachable.
I firmly believe Josh Jackson will grow into an excellent player in the NBA. Maybe even the Suns’ second of the “big three” they’ll need - along with Booker and their Top-5 pick this June.
Jackson is making a late run for first-team All-Rookie honors, trying to match Booker as the only Suns rookies to do so in the last 15 years (Amare Stoudemire, 2003). Since January 2, he is the third leading scorer among rookies and Top-5 in many categories. He could join Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell on the first team when it is announced in June.