Few would disagree that Josh Jackson hasn’t quite met the expectations many had for the former fourth overall pick coming out of college. The former Jayhawk struggled to live up to these lofty expectations during his first two years with the Phoenix Suns. Jackson was then given a chance to restore his reputation in 22 games with Memphis, a stretch that saw improved efficiency and added value in his limited role for a young Grizzlies team.
He showed enough in that 22-game sample size to convince Troy Weaver to take a shot on a hometown kid on a modest two-year deal.
Jackson, a local star at Consortium College Prep School, was relatively productive in the first year of his homecoming with the Pistons. Given the opportunity to take on an expanded role, Jackson played more than 1,500 minutes, and in those minutes he produced — some good things and some bad things.
Jackson could might spectacular plays, but he’d just as often leave you scratching your head, and his play style has never really screamed “efficiency.”
Know Your Role
Standing alone, the upside of Jackson looks pretty good. He’s still the same physical and athletic specimen that made him a top-five pick in 2017. His prototypical NBA frame allows him to be a plus on the defensive end, as he’s posted positive defensive win shares in each of his four seasons. That same frame, combined with his athleticism, makes him difficult to stop driving to the basket, as he is apt to attack the rim in an aggressive manner unmatched by many of his NBA counterparts.
This would be a good time to mention the downside.
Much of Jackson’s offensive game relies on his ability to drive to the hoop and draw in the defense. Unfortunately, far too often Jackson will draw the defense but then fail to make the correct read on a drive-and-kick opportunity or set up an open teammate cutting to the rim. He gets tunnel vision when attempting to create his own shot and Piston fans have seen plenty of offensive possessions come up empty because of it.
Jackson could get away with this on last year’s team because, well, somebody had to create the offense. Last year’s Detroit squad was a good fit for Jackson because the Pistons lacked players who could create. Jackson was the de facto “give him the ball and get out of his way” option on Detroit’s bench unit, and it was really fun — except for all those times when it wasn’t.
While he was a mainstay in the rotation on last year’s squad, Jackson was hardly a beneficiary of the Pistons’ good fortune in the lottery. Cade Cunningham’s impending entrance into the starting lineup creates a logjam at the backup 2 and 3 spots, with Jackson battling Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo for minutes at those positions. With that in mind, it’s clear that Jackson’s path to success this season looks quite different than it did a year ago.
The early years of Josh Jackson’s career revolved around him justifying his status as a top pick. The past two years have been about re-establishing himself as an asset in the NBA. This year, it will be up to Jackson to prove to Pistons’ brass that he can be a quality rotational player, providing positive contributions on and off the court, as well as giving the team a better chance to win every night.
In general, Jackson’s role this season will be dependent on a few key areas.
We’ve already mentioned that Jackson is a part of an overcrowded positional group as a backup wing with Frank and Hamidou. On top of that, the potential fit of Diallo and Jackson on the floor together gives Piston fans pause as their skillsets are viewed as being a tad redundant.
While there is truth to this, it doesn’t exactly mean that the pair can’t find success together on the Pistons’ bench unit. Head coach Dwane Casey alluded to this when speaking to Pistons media in early October:
Casey: "We have to make sure we define our roles with our players. We want Josh and Hami up the floor so they can finish on other end. Let's let our pushers push."— James Edwards III (@JLEdwardsIII) October 2, 2021
Admittedly, having two “non-shooting” wings share the floor is not ideal in today’s NBA. However, the sheer athleticism between Diallo and Jackson can help the Pistons’ bench in transition offense by pushing the break, and both players possess the athletic traits to wreak havoc defensively on opposing bench units.
The question remains, are there enough bench wing minutes to go around between Frank, Hami and Josh? This is where it would behoove Jackson to tap into a more malleable playing style, as the Pistons can run all three players together if Josh is able to guard opposing bench 4s.
Jackson hasn’t spent a lot of time at the power forward position in the past, but in today’s position-less game, there is potential for him to gain minutes by showing he can play that spot in a pinch.
Helping the young players grow
Speaking to Pistons’ media about Cunningham and Killian Hayes, Detroit’s first picks in the last two NBA drafts, Jackson had the following to say:
Josh Jackson said he tells Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes that it isn't a race. Being a former top-four pick, he understands the expectations they're facing. "This league is all about winning. People respect what you do when you win."— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) October 2, 2021
Even if Jackson struggles to contribute in his role this year, the value he can provide in this area is priceless.
Jackson knows better than most what it’s like to be a young player with sky high expectations in the NBA. The wisdom he can impart on Cade, Killian and the rest of the young Pistons is valuable, even if Jackson didn’t necessarily live up to the expectations of his own.
In his fifth campaign, it’s clear when listening to Jackson speak that he has grown as a professional over his NBA tenure. Though he cannot rewrite his own story, he can do a lot to help the Pistons’ young core write theirs.
Jackson can still be a leader on this team and serve as a mentor and an example for the young players. He’s had his share of ups and downs, battled through adversity and worked hard to be in the position he is now. No matter his on-court role, Jackson can provide great value leading by example and using his experience to aid the future of this team.
Jackson’s role this year will not afford him the freedom to take as many shots or have the ball in his hands as much as last year. For Jackson to be a difference maker on the offensive end, he will have to take advantage of the limited opportunities he’ll be given.
Offensive efficiency hasn’t been Jackson’s calling card over his time in the NBA. He can get a quick bucket, sure, but he’s not a threatening three-point shooter and his shot selection can be quite suspect.
Jackson will need to improve on this to excel in his role. A more-efficient 3-ball would be a great start. If he can convert on those opportunities with more regularity, it would go a long way towards his value as a bench scorer, and make all the other elements of his game even more dangerous.
At the very least, Piston fans can expect to see Jackson be more conscious about his shot selection this year. He’s already a plus defender, a good athlete in transition and a decent finisher. If he can improve his efficiency numbers this year, he could really find a groove as a valuable member of the Pistons’ bench.