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Why Justin Jackson is still a legitimate NBA prospect

Jackson’s draft stock plummeted in 2017-18, but he still declared. Now he has to prove it was the right decision.

Justin Jackson 3 Lila Bromberg | Testudo Times

Watching someone casually call Justin Jackson a future G-League all-star on his Instagram Live a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but question the cynicism around the Canadian’s pro prospects.

Then, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman said Jackson signing with an agent was the biggest mistake of the early entry period, serving as another scathing review of his decision to leave.

In all this, it’s been easy to forget what made his game so dangerous and coveted as a freshman. With the focus on Melo Trimble, the 6’7 Jackson thrived and sent scouts into a tizzy with his 7’3 wingspan allowing him to guard multiple positions while shooting nearly 44 percent from three.

After testing the draft process his rookie offseason, Jackson returned to College Park as a sophomore with lottery pick expectations heading into the season. Instead, he struggled for 11 games as the offense’s focal point, before it was revealed he had been playing through a torn labrum since the summer and would be shut down for the rest of the season. With his recovery going well enough for him to be able to participate in basketball activities and private workouts by the time the combine rolled around, Jackson ended his Terps run after just two years.

As a 21-year-old sophomore, Jackson had likely decided to declare long before the season. A missed campaign due to injury could have pushed him more toward leaving, rather than return for another season of unpaid development. What the injury also seems to have robbed him of is the hype around his still-legitimate NBA prospects.

What are said prospects you speak of?

In an NBA that is increasingly rewarding positionless basketball, Jackson will have an opportunity to prove he can stick. He’s been on scouts’ radars since he was a 15 year old, and was viewed to be in the 25-45 range had he stayed in the draft last season. This year’s draft pool is viewed as deeper, so there’s a real possibility he’ll go late in the draft, if he’s selected at all.

The problem is a lot of the preseason hype was based on a perception that he could become a star. Instead, he showed, through an injury, that he is who he is: a top-notch rebounder and a versatile defender with an offensive game that still leaves something to be desired. Jackson may never be a professional star, but he has the makings of a rotation forward in today’s NBA.

As a freshman, he shot 43.8 percent from three, but a lot of those came off Trimble drives and were close to the line. He’ll have to display he can consistently hit an NBA-range three. While playing with a torn labrum, he shot 25 percent and never looked comfortable. His true percentage is somewhere in between, but last season’s pre-shutdown performance also showed his offensive game is still a couple steps from consistency—he averaged 9.8 points and 1.9 assists a night at a 33.6 percent shooting clip.

His measurements will come up a lot between now and the draft. What should also be noted is the fact, despite injury, he still led Maryland on the boards with 8.1 rebounds per game. He was also the Terps’ most consistent defender, often guarding versatile forwards. Both were skills greatly missed by Maryland when he went down; when combined with Jackson’s measurements, they’re what make him so intriguing.

Don’t just take my word for it.

Here are:

The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks before the season:

He has everything NBA teams are looking for in a combo forward: He has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and the strength and speed to guard all five positions at the college level. Jackson can switch screens and protect the rim on defense, and he can step out and knock down 3s (43.8 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) and create shots for his teammates on offense. He has all the tools to be a special player, and now we will get the chance to see if he can put them all together.

Draft Express on Jackson’s showing at the competition portion of last year’s combine:

At 6’7 in shoes, with a 219-pound frame that could easily get to 240 pounds in no time, and a freakish 7’3.25 wingspan and 8’11 standing reach, Jackson has the tools to play full-time at the power forward position and even a fair amount of small-ball five at the NBA level. His offensive game is very much still a work in progress but he proved how valuable his physical gifts can be defensively, as he racked up eight steals and three blocks in only 45 total minutes. He met multiple opponents at the rim on Friday and showcased decent timing despite an average overall feel for the game. Jackson’s shooting potential, when paired with his defensive versatility, is what makes him an interesting fit in today’s NBA. ... The rest of Jackson’s game is very rigid. He’s limited with the ball, doesn’t think the game at a high level, and he often tends to leave you wanting more from a toughness and physicality standpoint.

Jackson also currently sits at No. 46 on SI’s big board:

With a nice blend of ball skills and physical tools, Jackson is an interesting second-round flier. He missed most of the season with a torn labrum in his shooting shoulder, which put him in an unenviable position with respect to the draft. The biggest question for Jackson was whether he could maintain last season’s three-point clip, and while his shoulder may be a valid excuse for his inconsistent early-season play, the numbers cast some doubt on his eventual impact as a scorer. He has a strong, NBA-ready body, a 7’3” wingspan and potential to help a team as a rebounder, ball-mover and versatile defender down the line, but his offense needs to click on some level first.

So what?

The Draft Express evaluation is likely the most relevant to Jackson, because without a year of positive game shape to show for, we’re essentially looking at the same prospect as last year with a few key caveats: he’s a year older, hasn’t played since December and definitely isn’t a 44 percent three-point shooter.

Not playing hurt him a lot; there’s no way around that. Had he impressed this year, he was looking at the lottery. Instead, he’ll be lucky to be selected as a late-second round flier. Jackson’s prototypical size, length and defensive versatility should be enough for a team to select him, but he’ll have to prove he’s healthy in individual workouts.

It could take him a couple years to develop into a consistent rotation player, with some G-League designations mixed in, but Jackson still has all the makings of a legitimate NBA prospect.