Josh Jackson is a guard by talent, disposition and practice. And besides, the man guarding him is some 23 pounds heavier. But here they go anyway, to the post, Jackson not only calling for the ball against the bigger man but doing it because this is what his coach wants.
Easy to see why, too. He takes two dribbles and a step to his right, shakes the bigger man with a spin back to his left shoulder, and banks the turnaround off the glass.
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Jackson is so talented he would be a top 10 NBA draft pick if he broke out in hives and his shoes melted every time he posted up. Kansas is good enough that it would’ve beaten Michigan State 90-70 in a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game here on Sunday without Jackson working the post.
But the fact he can makes this relentless, athletic and skilled 6-foot-7 guard’s future that much brighter, and his team that much more dangerous as it prepares for a Sweet 16 game against Purdue at Sprint Center on Thursday.
“That’s one thing that’s been kind of screwy for me,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We’d like to post him more. And he will. But I don’t know that he feels totally ...”
“He can play anywhere,” he said. “But the way that we play, he’s kind of fallen in love with being a guard. So we need to do some things sometimes to run some things for him to make sure he stays in there.”
This is an objectively strange thing to say, but here goes anyway: Frank Mason is deservedly winning National Player of the Year awards, and Jackson may be the better player.
He showed the whole thing against Michigan State, in both the micro and macro sense.
First, the micro.
Jackson scored 23 points on 16 shots — this after missing his first three, including an open dunk. He also blocked two shots, made two steals, and plus-minus is an imperfect stat, particularly for just one game, but it’s not a coincidence that his +24 was the highest on the team.
But, those post-ups. He did it three times Sunday, hitting all three shots — the turnaround, a baby hook and a step-back jumper. He also has a quick spin he’s shown a few times in games, and more in practice.
According to Synergy Sports, Jackson had only 10 buckets out of post-ups all season. His 23 attempts there accounted for just 5.9 percent of his usage. This was the most he’d posted all season, and the results were a bit head-shaking — like discovering your Ferrari can actually seat seven comfortably, with plenty of leg space.
“He’s so versatile,” said KU senior center Landen Lucas. “Whatever he feels he can take advantage of, he’s going to do that.”
Jackson’s growing game is also important for KU in the macro. Two years ago, the last KU season with a one-and-done talent, Andrew Wiggins shot just one of six as Kansas lost in the Round of 32 — this round.
The context makes this something less than an apples-to-apples comparison. Joel Embiid was injured, and Jackson is surrounded by better talent — most obviously at point guard.
But it’s also true that Wiggins is generally viewed to have disappeared in that game, and that even as he was essentially the same height and weight as Jackson is now, he virtually never worked in the post.
Jackson, by stark contrast, has the intensity of a mid-major senior, and continues to build his skill-set.
“Unbelievable,” KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. “He can score from in there, midrange, and everybody told us he couldn’t shoot, but he’s shooting it pretty good.”
His intensity has probably never been tested like this before. This is the most important game he’s ever played, and against Michigan State — just down the road from where he grew up, and the school he nearly picked over Kansas.
Jackson struggled with this earlier this season. He was called for three technicals in his first 14 games. The last two, in particular, were soft calls, but some combination of his profile, talent and habit of protesting whistles had earned him a reputation.
So, his post game isn’t the only place he has improved. Emotionally, he’s finding better success in making sure that his intensity works for him, instead of against him.
“One thing the coaching staff told me before the game was just to make sure I didn’t come out too excited, and I tried to keep that in my head,” Jackson said. “And I came out and was still just a little too excited. I tried to force stuff a little bit. But as the game went on, I felt like the game started slowing down. It came to me a little bit more.”
This is a major problem for KU’s opponents and is part of a fascinating matchup with Purdue on Thursday. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, and is making All-America teams. Isaac Haas is 7-2 and 290 pounds and averages 12.6 points.
When those two are on the floor together, chances are Jackson will have to guard one of them, and if Purdue is playing man defense, one of them will have to guard Jackson.
We probably wouldn’t see him posting too often, but then again, who knows? His game has been building all season, this moment of opportunity now in front of him to apparently be managed in any dang way Jackson pleases.