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Josh Jackson finding his niche midway through his rookie campaign mimics a promising trajectory

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Jackson’s incremental improvements attacking the rim has been a key to his strong second half of the season.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever driven a car that used a stick shift instead of an automatic, at least once before? It’s a weird feeling, but oddly similar to the awkward adjustment Josh Jackson had to go through during his first four months of his rookie season.

Stepping into his role behind T.J. Warren to begin his career, there was no ample pressure immediately on Jackson to produce, but many were expecting an instant impact from one who was considered the best two-way prospect. However, the early results were surprising in the polar opposite direction.

Not only did Jackson not look one bit like the player we saw at Kansas outside of his eye-popping athleticism, but when he received the basketball, defenses already knew one of two things was going to happen: Jackson would either chuck up a low-percentage contested shot, or dribble into traffic for a turnover.

Nothing seemed to be changing with Jackson up until 2018 began.

On January 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, interim head coach Jay Triano benched a healthy Jackson with a DNP-CD. The reason was obvious: Jackson was one of the worst players through his first 40 or so outings.

Whatever Triano said to Jackson once he logged 0 minutes on the court worked, because the next morning Jackson spoke with the local media admitting that the advanced numbers actually showed Phoenix was vastly better on both ends without him on the court. It’s rare you see a rookie show that kind of humility and realization to himself that things need to change right now.

Another area Triano also made us aware of was Jackson showing up late sometimes to team meetings/activities. It was clear that Jackson just needed to flip the switch to start becoming a player on the world-class NBA level.

One area to point towards as the main culprit of Josh Jackson’s meteoric improvements on offense is his ability to finish at the rim, especially on drive attempts.

At Kansas, Jackson flashed innate traits in all three facets (scoring, rebounding, passing) that made 7/30 (23.3%) general managers choose him as likely the best player from his draft class five years from now, according to the preseason annual GM survey.

After going back through and tracking Jackson’s progress using his physical gifts attacking the rim, the above notion is backed up completely.

The Suns’ No. 4 pick in the 2017 Draft turned it on in February and March with massive jumps in overall effectiveness. Also, Jackson’s turnovers in these situations have dropped off substantially in the last eight weeks.

October: 51 drives, 9-28 FGA (32.1%), 3.9 AST%, 7.9 TOV%

November: 78 drives, 17-44 (38.6%), 3.1 AST%, 11.6 TOV%

December: 77 drives, 12-41 (29.3%), 3.9 AST%, 11.7 TOV%

January: 67 drives, 11-33 (33.3%), 7.5 AST%, 9 TOV%

February: 78 drives, 23-56 (41.1%), 2.6 AST%, 5.1 TOV%

March: 102 drives, 25-58 (43.1%), 5.9 AST%, 6.9 TOV%

April: 50 drives, 8-27 (29.6%), 4 AST%, 4 TOV%

Season Average: 35.3%, 4.4 AST%, 8 TOV%

As you can tell by his total season averages, Jackson’s numbers are barely at an average level, worse from an AST/TO standpoint, but his sudden realization in February and March to take his attempts into overdrive paid off in spades.

For example, the only other wings who played more than 1,000 minutes finishing with a drive percentage of 35% or lower included the likes of Stanley Johnson, P.J. Tucker, Danny Green, Maurice Harkless, and Semi Ojeleye but if he’s able to keep it near his numbers from early in 2018, he could quickly turn into a match-up nightmare on that end.

Especially without Devin Booker and T.J. Warren out there consistently, including neither of them playing after March 17th, Jackson took his opportunity and ran with it.

Since March itself kicked off, Jackson has floated at 28.5 USG% with a banged up Warren still available, but from March 17th on, it skyrocketed up to 31.6%.

For any rookie, that’s an absurdly high usage rate. Especially for a player who was originally pegged as being the third or fourth option scoring, at best, before all the turmoil and drama around Earl Watson and Eric Bledsoe reached its boiling point back in October.

Jackson’s 31.6 USG% has only been trumped by five other wings (Harrison Barnes, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James), seven players total since St. Patrick’s Day.

Since the All-Star break, though, Jackson was right in line with rookies like Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. based simply off of a usage perspective.

Jackson himself has worked his way back into contention of making an All-Rookie team after his nightmare of a start. The numbers from January-April on Kyle Kuzma and Jayson Tatum show that he actually has a shot. Although it’s not a strong shot at the moment with Phoenix’s overall lack of success in the second half, but he should definitely draw heavy consideration.

In a very similar manner to what the Los Angeles Lakers did with a struggling Brandon Ingram during his up-and-down rookie campaign, they eventually upped his usage and hoped this would result in accelerating his development into a more consistent breakout during his second season.

For Los Angeles, it paid off well because once the new year rolled around for their prized rookie, Brandon Ingram flipped a switch in a very similar manner to Jackson. After only averaging 7.8 points on 35.6% shooting, 2016’s No. 2 overall pick flipped to posting 12 points on a 47% conversion rate including 32% on three-pointers.

It obviously won’t be talked about much outside of Phoenix, and especially not as big of a market as LA, but it’s hard to deny the similarities these two promising young wings possess right now.

Even though many Ingram apologists will be quick to point out he’s younger, albeit only seven months, Jackson has all the makings of pulling something very similar if general manager Ryan McDonough properly places pieces that will help show off their young core’s strengths.

Take a gander at how Ingram and Jackson compared, from a counting stats perspective, below:

Ingram - 9.4 points, 4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks on 40.2/29.4/62.1 shooting splits

Jackson - 13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1 steal, 0.5 blocks on 41.7/26.3/63.4 shooting splits

When you dig even deeper from an advanced stats point of view, these two are similar in overall player archetypes. I’ve been putting these two under a similar microscope for most of the season, because both are unique wings who have qualities of becoming two-way mavens very soon.

Yes, Jackson’s usage rate is 10% higher than Ingram’s was due to his sheer volume without Booker and Warren the past month or so, but both are nearly identical across the board in rebounding, assist, steal, and block percentages. Also, both went to the free throw line at similar rates (Ingram = 31.2 ftR, Jackson = 29.9 ftR).

In Ingram’s second season, he now posted 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4 assists with a 53.6 TS%, but that in of itself shows the possibilities with Jackson heading into an all-important 2018-19 season for the Suns.

If Jackson is even able to bring his three-point percentage up from 26.3 into the neighborhood of 33-34%, that would do wonders for his offense. Ingram, meanwhile, saw his shooting clip from the outside jump up from 29 to 39%.

Ingram did not have as significant of mechanical issues with his shot like Jackson did, but this season with the lack of shooters and overall spacing around him, he had to attempt way more from the outside than he would have liked.

There’s no reason to believe that Jackson shouldn’t be able to match a similar second year rise to what Ingram experienced. Something along the lines of 16-6-3-1-1 sounds like a possibility for an actual consistent stat line for Jackson, if the Suns pull the trigger on him starting over Warren next season.

His jumper is the key to him reaching his full potential, but this fast track that Phoenix put him on over the past few months is setting up for promising results that Magic Johnson oversaw with Brandon Ingram in Los Angeles.

To even be writing that type of outlook for Jackson in April is a stark contrast to how it would have been in 2017.

Undergoing a near 180-degree turn in performance and on-court awareness, Jackson seems positioned to vault even higher towards the high marks that were thrown his way once he was selected by Phoenix.

Outside of adding more help alongside their franchise cornerstone in Booker this summer, the Suns expect Jackson to quickly mold himself into the perfect complimentary piece.

After this mid-season turnaround and a boost in touches over the past six weeks, Phoenix is counting on that to occur. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against it after watching him improve his outlook exponentially over the past four months.