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NBA Saturday: Jackson Finding His Way in Summer League

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For a period of time, Josh Jackson was considered the cream of the crop in the 2016 recruiting class. The California native scored a 102 rating on 247sports, the highest grade given out in the website’s history, and talent evaluators around the game viewed him as the player with the most NBA star potential.

From Justin-Siena High School in Napa, California, Jackson made his way to Lawrence for his freshman season at the University of Kansas. While the 6-foot-7 wing played well throughout the season, showing flashes of his impressive potential, the scrutiny of the NBA draft evaluation process saw Jackson dislodged from the top spot amongst his peers.

Instead of being selected first overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, as had been projected by many just one year ago, Jackson instead fell to No. 4 and the Phoenix Suns. In fact, Jackson wasn’t even the first player at his position selected. That honor went to Jayson Tatum, just one pick before Jackson, when Tatum was selected by the Boston Celtics.

However, draft position matters for all of about 24 hours. After that day is over, every player – drafted or not – is on the same grind to make it in the league.

Jackson’s NBA career began in the Las Vegas Summer League. And just like his time at Kansas, the high-flying wing is showing what makes his combination of athleticism and skill so tantalizing. But with new territory comes a level of unfamiliarity that can knock even the most skilled players off their game, and Jackson learned in Vegas that he is no exception to that.

“Coming out, especially the first few games, I was nervous,” Jackson said of his Summer League experience. “But I’ve learned that it’s just another basketball game. I just have to come out and be myself and just worry about the things I can control. I think those are the biggest things I’ve learned so far.”

When Jackson was drafted by the Suns this past June, he joined a core of talented and promising young players. Out in the desert, the likes of Devin Booker (owner of a 70-point scoring performance), Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss (the No. 4 and 8 picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, respectively) are all coming into their own for a Phoenix team that is in search of its next cemented identity.

While Bender struggled for most of his rookie season, which is not uncommon for a teenager in the NBA, his 7-foot-1 frame and sweet shooting stroke give enough hope that with seasoning he can develop into the top-five pick he was selected as. Chriss, on the other hand, saw a late season bloom during his rookie campaign. Over the final 20 games of the season, Chriss averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Chriss’ overall performance during his rookie season led him to be named to the NBA All-Rookie second team.

Both Bender and Chriss joined Jackson on the floor in Las Vegas, giving three of Phoenix’s most important pieces moving forward ample time to develop a feel for each other.

“Just being out there with those guys, I think they’re two guys who have a really high I.Q. just being out there,” Jackson said of playing with Bender and Chriss. “They know where to be, how to move, when to pass the ball. I think just being out there and playing with them has definitely taken my I.Q. level up a little bit.”

Heading into the regular season, the Suns’ lineup will most definitely feature Booker in the backcourt in some capacity, whether playing off of the ball or dabbling in the point guard position. Bender and Chriss will see more than their fair share of minutes in the front court, leaving Jackson to be the team’s initiator from the wing. Elite level play from the wing is the current wave the NBA is on, and getting on-court time in Vegas exclusively from that position is giving Jackson an opportunity to hit the ground running when the regular season tips off.

“I’m getting used to it,” Jackson said. “The three is probably my natural position and being out there with those two guys, they’re so versatile, so tall, so athletic, it just makes the game really fun. With the offensive abilities that they have, they can stretch the floor, it helps me out by just opening the floor a little bit more for myself to drive to the basket.”

Even acknowledging his nerves early on in Summer League play, Jackson continuously put on a show on both ends of the court. Through his five games, Jackson averaged 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block per game.

However, even with no shortage of stat-stuffing performances each night, Jackson’s game is far from a finished product. Jackson mentioned his need to cut down on turnovers moving forward. And the biggest knock coming out of college was his inconsistent jump shot. Through those same five games in Vegas, Jackson connected on just 42.5 percent of his shots. Jackson knows it’s imperative he sinks those jumpers moving forward.

But even if those shots aren’t falling, don’t expect the former five-star recruit to stop chucking.

“Once I knock down my outside shot I feel like the defender has to respect it a little bit more and it opens it up for me to do what I’m really great at, which is getting to the basket,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, I can just keep knocking it down and, if not, I’m going to keep shooting it anyway.”

As summer league winds down for Jackson and the Suns, a glimpse into how Phoenix’s newest draft pick can mesh with his teammates and help to bolster their developing young core provided promising results.

When asked about what are the biggest things Jackson had been asked to focus on by the Suns’ coaching staff in Las Vegas, the rookie responded, “being tough and giving 110 percent effort.”

Add in those two ingredients consistently to a player who’s already bursting at the seams with potential, and Phoenix very well may have the next cornerstone piece in their latest rebuild.

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About Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.