Forget what Josh Jackson did in overcoming a December DNP-CD, forget the high-usage, end-of-season travails that inspired voters to put him on the All-Rookie Second Team, forget the fact, for a moment that the Suns spent the No. 4 pick on him.
At this point, after the June trade for Mikal Bridges and the Suns’ lottery fortune in landing Deandre Ayton, the biggest value Jackson has to this organization is as a trade chip. And his value in that regard is only going to get lower as the season goes on.
What we learned about Jackson after the 2018 All-Star break is that he has the quickness and skill to scoot past most NBA players in one-on-one situations and harness them, for the most part, on defense. He struggled to finish at the rim, his shot still a work in progress, and the Suns’ team defense mitigated the impact he had on that side of the floor. But he showed real improvement in several games to close the year.
Take Feb. 4 at home against the Hornets -- Jackson was 10-14 from the field for 23 points, including two three-pointers. That type of performance would have been unimaginable early in the year. But the question the Suns have to ponder is whether his improvement will continue into this season under new coach Igor Kokoskov, or whether they should course-correct from the Kyrie Irving negotiations in 2017 and make Jackson a legitimate part of trade talks.
Teams tend to get more value out of the fourth overall pick than Jackson currently has. Over the past five years, that slot has produced Aaron Gordon, Kristaps Porzingis and Jaren Jackson Jr., as well as another Sun, Dragan Bender. At the same time, his reputation from Kansas as an Andre Iguodala-type two-way playmaker still holds more weight than it might after another up-and-down year. Teams take a chance on guys with this much talent all the time, but that likelihood ticks away with each unsteady game.
It’s not a given Jackson will start this year like he ended the last. Kokoskov will ask for constant, precise movement, smart decisions and efficient shot-making. Jackson just hasn’t shown an ability to constantly do any of that through one season, and it stands out compared with his incredible draft class. He turned the ball over 12 times per 100 possessions last season, with an abysmal .480 true shooting percentage, making him one of the least efficient players in the league.
Like many Suns, coming from a team that ranked last in both offensive and defensive efficiency, Jackson was near the absolute bottom in most player-value stats. By ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which estimates on-court impact per 100 possessions, Jackson was nearly four points worse than average over the course of the season, landing at 495 of 521 eligible players.
This all matters not only with the latest reports that Jimmy Butler has asked out of Minnesota, but also as the Suns begin to hunt for the final pieces of their rebuilt roster they hope will launch them back into playoff competition. Phoenix needs a point guard, of course, and is about to set off toward paying Devin Booker and T.J. Warren a combined $38 million in 2019-20. They want to win.
The man holding most of the cards in this scenario is general manager Ryan McDonough, whose contract is set to expire in less than 24 months. It will be up to him to navigate whether the acquisition of Bridges and adding so much young talent to the roster this summer makes Jackson expendable, or potentially to decide to continue down the difficult road of a more traditional rebuild, in Year Nine without the playoffs.
Outside of the Suns’ own draft picks, Ayton and Booker, the second-year forward is the Suns’ best trade asset. He’s the guy teams still likely see as a high-ceiling, modern player, because that’s exactly what he is. Trading him is a risk, to give up on that talent before Jackson turns 22.
But that truth is at odds with what the Suns know they have to eventually do -- win. Kokoskov, Booker, James Jones and just about everyone else in this organization talks pleadingly about returning to contention.
Building a competitive, sustainable roster is hard. Teams have to make sacrifices. As things stand, Jackson is the player most easily cashed in for future viability. No one knows what he will become, but the opportunity to move on and upgrade from the former No. 4 overall pick is fleeting.
Wait too long, and the whole window might close.