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Buzzworthy Picks 2021: Isaiah Jackson

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LaMelo Ball’s former high school teammate could be the rim-runner the Hornets need in the middle

Auburn v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Next up on the docket of Buzzworthy Picks in the 2021 NBA Draft class; Isaiah Jackson, a freshman big man out of Kentucky that worked out for the Charlotte Hornets on July 3.

Measurements (per Tankathon):

Height: 6’10.5”

Weight: 206 pounds

Wingspan: 7’2.5”

Pre-college

Jackson spent one year a piece at four different high schools, with his junior year at SPIRE Academy coming alongside LaMelo Ball and Rocket Watts in which he averaged 14.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. He graduated from Waterford Mott High School as a consensus top-35 recruit and chose to play college basketball at Kentucky over Alabama and Syracuse.

College

John Calipari’s stable of freshmen didn’t come close to living up to the expectations set for the group as a whole, but Jackson bolstered or improved his draft stock more than any other Wildcat. He began the year as a borderline first-rounder and a prospect some thought would spend more than one year in Lexington (even himself); however, Jackson flashed enough potential as a rim-running center that he ended up declaring for the draft and then withdrew from the combine with a rumored draft promise.

Jackson’s per-game stat line of 8.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 25 games played (18 starts) gives a look into his potential as a defense-first big, but 16.3 points per-40 on 70 percent from the line and 67.9 percent at the rim (per BartTorvik) while ranking sixth in the nation in block percentage (12.8) is a lot more eye-popping.

Strengths: athleticism, rim-running, rim protection potential

The basic appeal of Isaiah Jackson as a prospect lies in his potential as a rim-runner, buoyed by impressive athleticism and solid length. He stands nearly 6-foot-11 with a wingspan over 7-foot-2, and though those measurements are not NBA official it’s fair to assume they’re accurate. At 206 pounds, he’ll have to add some weight to prevent himself from getting moved around on the interior but he’s by no means “skinny” and his lighter frame allows him more freedom of movement and mobility defending away from the basket.

There’s nothing overly flashy about this clip, but notice how Jackson is attentive and well-positioned defensively and immediately fills his lane and streaks down the floor with his eyes fixated on the ball-handler for when he gets open, which he does while making a one-handed open-court lob finish look much easier than it actually is.

In this next clip, “I-Jax” (shout out #1 I-Jax supporters Brian Geisinger and Lee Branscome) puts his functional athleticism and potential as a threat to attack off of face-ups on display. He jabs, gets past John Fulkerson with ease and takes two long steps before punching home the reverse.

These plays can be sprinkled between some mind-boggling miscues and examples of poor offensive feel, but the base level skills are present; with his size, length, speed and verticality he doesn’t need to add much to be an effective cutter and rim-runner.

The bread and butter of Jackson’s game is rim protection, which he’ll be able to provide for an NBA team right off the bat. Athleticism and size feed heavily into his ability as a rim protector, but his awareness and feel for the game on defense are really good — far better than offense. Jackson was 12th in the nation with 65 total blocks, recording two games with 7+ blocks. His 6.0 defensive box plus-minus ranked fourth in the entire country.

For now, Jackson is more of a “traditional” rim protector than a Bam Adebayo type that’s switching across all positions and shuffling on the perimeter, but that’s not to say he can’t offer that kind of versatility in the future. Again it’s nothing flashy, but watch I-Jax quickly and easily switch and slide with Ochai Agbaji on the perimeter before recovering and swatting the air out of the ball on Marcus Garrett’s layup attempt:

There are seemingly millions of Isaiah Jackson block highlights, but the ones that show glimpses into a future where he’s expanded his elite rim protection into switchability a bit more advanced than the above clip are what have me intrigued.

Areas to develop: playmaking, offensive feel, shooting range

A big man having a negative assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t in itself an example of poor offensive feel or playmaking ability, but in Jackson’s case (18 total assists, 38 total turnovers) it’s certainly something to work on. His ball-handling ability doesn’t extend much beyond facing up, ripping through and taking a few dribbles towards the rim, which does more to limit him as a playmaker than a lack of passing ability or willingness because he doesn’t create and draw help defenders. Even if Jackson doesn’t develop much as a passer, it likely won’t be a “make or break” swing skill in the league.

At this point, Jackson’s scoring production is limited to dunks, layups, basic post moves or put-backs (106 of his 137 FGA were dunks or “at the rim”). In his first few seasons, rim-running will keep him afloat on that end, especially if he develops pick-and-roll chemistry with his guards.

To me, his biggest swing skill is going to be extending that shooting range. Jackson displays fine touch around the basket with good footwork and his mechanics look sound on film on both jumpers and free throws. He went 0-for-2 from deep at Kentucky and 1-for-14 during the 2019 EYBL season, but put him in a gym with an NBA shooting coach and in a couple of seasons he might be taking two steps back behind the line in clips like this:

On top of the shooting flashes, Jackson already draws fouls (.657 FTA rate) and converts free throws (70 percent, 63-90 FT) at a high rate for a big. One of his best traits is the non-stop motor he plays with and that’ll help him beat and bang in the paint. Outside of actually making 3-pointers prior to the NBA, Jackson has nearly every indicator that teams look for to project floor-spacing potential. If he develops into a league-average shooter, it adds a new layer to his game as a pick-and-pop threat on top of being a vertical threat on the roll.

Overview

Given that Jackson has a prior connection with Ball, the organization’s franchise player, and fits the team’s need for a rim protecting, athletic center with size to pair with the eclectic point guard, it makes sense that general manager Mitch Kupchak wanted to bring him in for a closer look. After Evan Mobley, the “consensus” top center prospects in the draft right now are Usman Garuba, Kai Jones, Alperen Şengün, and Jackson, though Jackson is the only one that’s been reported to have visited Charlotte for a workout.

In terms of fit, Jackson is probably the way to go if the Hornets were to draft a center with the 11th pick. He offers interesting upside as a pick-and-roll partner for Ball if his feel for the game, passing and floor-spacing improve, but he’s not as much of a project as Jones, per se, since he should be able to contribute defensively as a rookie and might be one of the better rim protectors in the game when his prime comes around.