LAS VEGAS – Be it his distinct Afro, unusual jersey number or unorthodox game, Phoenix Suns rookie swingman Josh Jackson was bound to find some way to stand out in one of the most talent-rich draft classes to enter the NBA in some time. With little more than personal preference and position separating the more promising prospects at the top, Jackson won’t spend too much time arguing why he believes he’s the best, or to criticize the three teams that chose other players ahead of him. Too much worked out for all of the parties involved to complain.
Boston had considered Jackson for the top overall pick, but he never took seriously the Celtics’ interest in him, refusing a workout even after they traded down for the third overall pick. The Celtics eventually chose Duke’s Jayson Tatum and added a first-round pick in the process, while Philadelphia landed the point guard it has long coveted with the first overall pick in Markelle Fultz. The Lakers landed the playmaker and leader they have wanted to push along their rebuilding efforts in Lonzo Ball. The perpetually rebuilding Suns, who haven’t seen the playoffs since before Steve Nash skipped town, have the versatile, defensive-minded, aggressive-rebounding forward for which the franchise has been longing since Shawn Marion.
“When you look at it, everybody got basically what they needed or wanted. On draft night, everybody won, no matter what. I feel like I’m in the right place. And I feel like the Phoenix Suns got the exact player they were looking for, the exact type of player they were looking for. I feel like Philadelphia got what they were looking for, the Lakers, Boston [too],” Jackson told The Vertical. “I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. You sit down and ask me, do I feel like I’m better than those guys? I’m going to tell you, ‘Yeah.’ You sit down and ask them, are they better than me and the rest of them? They’ll tell you the same thing. That’s how we are. We’re all competitive and we’re all really talented.”
Each decade has a special draft class that is discussed for generations – 1984, 1996, 2003 – and the 2017 class already has the potential to eventually be in that conversation. A record 16 freshmen – including the first five picks and 11 of the 14 lottery selections – went in the first round, breaking the previous mark for the one-and-done era of 13, set in 2015. The number could’ve been 17 if Oklahoma City guard Terrance Ferguson hadn’t decided to spend his lone season after high school playing in Australia. “This is a really good class. People have been saying that for years. But I’ve known how good this class is since like the seventh, eighth grade,” Jackson told The Vertical. “To see all these guys who I’ve been knowing for so long and some of them, considered to be my friends, to see us growing up, having success and living out our dreams basically, it’s real special and fun for me.”
In his lone season at Kansas, Jackson kept tabs of his fellow freshmen but never measured up his statistics or accomplishments against anyone else. Having exchanged some trash talk with Gary Payton, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in that category, while playing in high school, Jackson certainly isn’t short on confidence. “I’m more of guy who was about winning more than anything else. If you look at our class, you look at everybody at the top of the draft, top 10, top 20, whatever, I’m the only guy who played out of position my entire college career,” said Jackson, who’ll play small forward in Phoenix after playing power forward for the Jayhawks. “I sacrificed that for my team, and I knew what I had to do for us to win. So I just came out and did it. I played hard, I rebounded and I defended. And it came at a cost to me a little bit because I didn’t get to show off the offensive skill set that I do have. But I’m always a guy that’s about winning and I’ll do the same thing here. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
Jackson’s boundless energy, passing and defensive tenacity were on full display during NBA summer league, where he earned first-team honors. He also has a work-in-progress jump shot that will have to improve for him to maximize his effectiveness at the next level. He is joining a Suns team that has discovered a foundational piece in Devin Booker, one of the league’s most promising players under age 21. But Phoenix is still waiting on other youngsters, such as Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, to join him to form an intriguing core. The addition of Jackson will make them marginally better in a Western Conference that dramatically improved this offseason.
“Obviously, when you look at it, you see a young team. And I think that’s what’s really special for us,” Jackson told The Vertical. “One of the comparisons I like to make is when you look at the Warriors back when they were young and just starting off together. You had a young Draymond [Green], young Klay [Thompson], young Steph [Curry]. It didn’t all click for them at the beginning. They weren’t as good as they are now, but they got to grow up together and I feel like, them having that time growing together like that, really made their team chemistry so much better now, and I can see something like that happening for us here.”
Jackson will become the fifth NBA player to ever wear No. 99 this season. He wasn’t given his first jersey choice because Brandon Knight, a player who has fallen out of favor with the organization more than two years after it sacrificed a first-round pick to acquire him, currently wears No. 11 for the Suns. Knight has been buried and would prefer to be moved to a team where he can play. The Suns would love to accommodate him – with plans to rely on younger alternatives in the interim – but the asking price has been too high, said a source with knowledge of the situation. Jackson is fine with going into his rookie season looking like a stretched-out defensive end, especially because 99 was the last number he wore before switching to 11.
“Back then, I just thought it was cool. Thought it was funny. Now I just felt like, might as well stick with it. Not many other people have it,” Jackson told The Vertical. “Maybe it’ll be something that’s mine. Something special, that when you look at it, you’ll think of me. I like being unique, definitely.”
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