University of Kansas

Josh Jackson embracing all that comes with being a No. 1 recruit at Kansas

KU freshman Josh Jackson.
KU freshman Josh Jackson.

Josh Jackson believes his words were blown out of proportion.

The day before Kansas men’s basketball media day in October, the No. 1 freshman in the nation started some national buzz after he was on the cover of USA Today’s college basketball preview alongside the quote: “We’re trying to go undefeated.”

Jackson doesn’t deny saying that. But he believes the sentence is being misinterpreted as something it’s not.

“We’re not predicting a 40-0 season. That’s just what we’re striving for. That’s what we’re trying to get to,” Jackson said Oct. 13. “If you don’t believe it, you can never do it, so why not?”

The response, if nothing else, proved one thing: Though Jackson’s game often is compared with that of former KU star Andrew Wiggins, the two aren’t much alike when it comes to persona.

For much of the 2013-14 season, Wiggins spent his time in Lawrence as the uncomfortable celebrity. Already dubbed “Maple Jordan” by some and the best player since LeBron James by others, Wiggins wasn’t yet comfortable with the spotlight … even if it shines less bright at KU than it does in the NBA.

Wiggins was polite but rarely expanded upon his thoughts in interviews. He smiled often, but many times his voice was barely above a whisper as the microphones crept closer.

This, it’s clear, is not how Jackson will be this season. While both No. 1 recruits received the “alpha dog” label from Bill Self, the KU coach backed off that assessment once he was able to see Wiggins’ demeanor on campus.

That’s not as likely to happen with Jackson.

“He’s coming in as mature and worldly as any kid we’ve ever had,” Self said. “He’s well beyond his years for a college freshman.”

That includes public settings as well.

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Though Jackson claims to be nervous in front of large groups (he held a basketball in both hands during KU’s media day as a soothing device), it certainly hasn’t shown yet. He is composed around cameras and confident in his responses, appearing to be ready to be one of the faces of the program from the season’s start.

“I’ve been doing interviews for kind of a long time now,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of part of the job.”

Jackson’s game is sure to be dissected locally and nationally, as his greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses already seem to be well known.

First, the good: Jackson is an explosive athlete. He’s hard to stop in transition, combining great ball handling with an innate ability to find teammates.

His size also is an advantage. At 6 feet 8, he should be tall enough to guard 4s yet versatile enough to pick up guards off ball screens. He’s also shown, with his quickness, a knack for creating steals and transition opportunities.

Now, the bad: Jackson’s jumpshot needs work, as he has a noticeable hitch and a low release.

Self, while saying he likes Jackson’s shot, has delegated assistant coach Kurtis Townsend as the person who is allowed to work with him on technique. That means Jackson separating his fingers on the ball for better control and working to shoot it from above his head.

“In high school, I shot it from my face a little bit,” Jackson said. “I think my shot’s getting a lot better.”

Though Wiggins was never known as a shooter either, he developed as enough of an outside threat to get by. He made 34 percent of his three-pointers at KU, and if Jackson can match that, he’d likely make defenses respect him on the perimeter.

That would only add to his game. Early in the exhibition season, Jackson was able to drive by numerous defenders, oftentimes getting all the way to the rim for layups.

“Josh is everything as advertised in our eyes,” Self said. “He’s got a chance to be one of the elite players in the country as a freshman.”

That doesn’t mean everything has come easy so far.

Jackson had to adjust to a more strict weightlifting regimen once he arrived at KU, admitting there were days when his body hurt so badly from workouts that he didn’t want to get out of bed.

There also was an acclimation to Self’s coaching style. Jackson has become more familiar with the demanding coach while saying he “didn’t expect him to be quite like this.”

“What’s kind of scaring me is some of the players are telling me that this is nothing. It gets so much worse,” Jackson said during KU’s media day. “I’m just waiting to see what that’s like.”

Jackson also is recognized more than he wants to be around Lawrence, though that’s not always a negative. He says he’s happy to speak to children when they approach him asking for pictures.

“I know I was that kid before, and I was looking up to somebody,” Jackson said. “I would have loved to have somebody do it for me.”

Self made it clear during Big 12 media days that he does not expect Jackson back for a second season in Lawrence, as the 19-year-old is projected as the first pick by and fourth by DraftExpress.

If this is his only season, he’ll look to break through a barrier for KU one-and-dones. Eight Jayhawks have declared for the pros after their freshman seasons under Self, but none of them have been able to reach a Final Four.

“I think our team is capable of winning a national championship for sure,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to win the Big 12 again. We can do it all. We definitely have got the team who can do it.”

The words are just another example of Jackson being unafraid of his own voice, not fearing the potential consequences of putting high expectations upon himself or his teammates.

That includes the original talk of an undefeated season.

“That’s our goal. That’s our goal,” Jackson said. “We know it’s going to be really hard and kinda unlikely, but that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell