Josh Jackson is here only because the rules prevent him from playing in the NBA just yet. He is better at basketball than many of the men making millions, and will be able to prove that after being a top three draft pick this summer.
He is playing at Kansas out of necessity, but already has proven he is taking this forced apprenticeship seriously. He puts everything he has into games, and practices, which already separates him from other one-and-dones (including, it should be said, Andrew Wiggins).
This is perhaps his best trait, the thing that endears him to basketball people even more than his long frame, superior athleticism, and growing vision. He is here to work on his feel, his jumper, his defense, his handle — and now his temper.
This is a real thing now.
In Kansas’ 90-88 see-no-travel-call-no-travel win over Kansas State on Tuesday, Jackson was called for a technical foul. That’s his third technical in 14 games, and the last Kansas player with more in a season was Thomas Robinson. Only three players in college basketball this season have more. This is a problem.
“Surely he’s going to learn, he’s got to learn,” KU coach Bill Self said. “He’s too good a player. He’s developed a reputation now, that he’s got to get the last word. These are good officials. These are guys who’ve called the Final Four. They’re not going to take any crap from anybody.”
Jackson’s first technical came against Duke, when he slapped a dead ball out of an opposing player’s hands, for no reason other than frustration. Deserved that one, and it came on a nationally televised showcase game between two of the sport’s premier programs. Jackson has always been intense, occasionally a bit too much so, and the combination has apparently turned officials overly sensitive.
His second technical came against TCU, when he was called for a questionable over-the-back foul, slammed the ball to the ground in front of himself in frustration, then left the ball and ran down the court without saying anything. That’s a soft technical.
His third technical came against K-State, when by all accounts he yelled “that’s a foul” to official Ray Natili. That’s an absurdly soft technical. After the game, I asked Jackson if that’s all he said, whether there was an escalating descriptor in there somewhere.
“That’s a foul,” Jackson said. “That’s all I said.”
Earlier in the game, official Mike Stuart declined to call a technical on K-State’s Isaiah Maurice for slapping a dead ball off the court, instead telling Maurice, “I protected you on that one.”
A few plays later, multiple K-State players were arguing with another official over a call. No technical, and you are free to make the joke about this being the first time officials have ever protected visiting players and T’d up a Jayhawk in Allen Fieldhouse.
Some of this, surely, can be explained with the boilerplate problems in college basketball officiating about little to no uniformity and oversight. If Jackson said those words to Natili, instead of Stuart, maybe we’re not having this conversation.
But the part that matters is what Self referred to. Jackson earned his way to this spot. Jackson is now quite obviously a target.
Let’s be clear about one thing: the officials should be above this kind of pettiness. It’s a bad look for them, and confirms some of the worst (and almost always misguided) stereotypes about officials.
This is sports entertainment, no matter what the NCAA says, and professional officials don’t need to be treating harmless moments of competitiveness like a challenge to a fight. But, they’re also human.
We can argue whether this would be true if Jackson wasn’t so good, if he wasn’t months from being a millionaire, but the answer is both impossible to know and fundamentally irrelevant.
Even if we look at this in the most pragmatic way, this is a problem for Jackson. Technical fouls count as personal fouls, which means less time on the court for his overwhelming talent. That hurts his team, and that hurts him, too.
Also, any energy or focus he spends on a particular call, or on some playground show of machismo like slapping the ball away from an opponent, is taking away from the impact he can make on the court — again, hurts his team, and hurts him, too.
This isn’t a major problem. Not yet, anyway. You’d rather have a guy with Jackson’s intensity than one you had to push, and at 19 years old and his first months of true national attention, of course his progress isn’t going to be a straight line.
To that point, he showed an encouraging moment the other night. An hour or so after an official made it clear Jackson is a target, and minutes before Self would essentially say the same thing, I asked Jackson if that’s how he felt — like a target.
“From the refs?” he said. “I don’t think so. I don’t really think so.”
Smart man. Hopefully that’s a sign of recognition. And hopefully it can help officials to save the technicals for the moments that really deserve them.