The Growth and Rise of Rookie Josh Jackson

by Cody Cunningham

Josh Jackson was considered by some to be a raw prospect coming into the league and over the first couple of months showed some growing pains. Entering the league at just 20 years old, Jackson admitted that at times he was frustrated. 

“A little bit here and there, of course,” Jackson said. “I feel that’s natural as a rookie, coming in and having early struggles, but I felt I kept a strong head, stayed strong minded and I stayed working hard.”

Like most NBA athletes, Jackson was always one of the most talented players on the court growing up. What surprised him the most when he entered the league was the elite skill level across the board.

“I think it was really just how good every last player is from the first guy to the last guy on the bench,” Jackson said. “Every team is full of talent and you never know who you are going against sometimes.”

Josh Jackson Goes Up-and-Under Against Blake Griffin

Just three games into his rookie year, Jackson’s skill and athleticism were put to the test as the Suns tipped-off against the Los Angeles Clippers. 

“I think my first welcome to the NBA moment was I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “That was pretty hard for me. It wasn’t easy at all. I was just trying to fight him for rebounds.”

Jackson seemed to have a difficult time finding consistency on the court as he was trying to adjust his game to the speed and talent level of the NBA. 

“Earlier in the season I felt like I was just going a little too fast and maybe attacking a little too much and sometimes getting a little out of control,” Jackson said.

On Jan. 1, Head Coach Jay Triano made a coaching decision as Jackson was left on the bench for his first and only “DNP” of the season. 

“I sat down and talked to him and told him how I felt, which a coach and player should do,” Triano said.

Annexus Practice Report: Jackson Watching Film with Coach

Something seemed to click for Jackson after that moment as his rookie numbers began to rise. 

Jackson scored a career-high 21 points against the Pacers just four games later and has continued his success throughout the rest of the season. To put it into perspective, Jackson was averaging just 9 points and 2.5 rebounds in the first few months. Since then, he is averaging 15.9 points while grabbing 5.7 boards. 

“I’m doing a better job of staying in control and picking and choosing my shots,” Jackson said. “I’m a lot more comfortable. I actually feel like I see the floor a lot better.” 

Although Jackson did not make the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars in February, he instead uses it as motivation as he continues to climb the rookie rankings.

“I felt like I should have been in the game. I wanted to, but I wasn’t,” Jackson said. “It is what it is. Every game I’m going to come out and still be me. I’m going to play hard and do everything that I can.” 

Almost exactly one month after the rising stars event, Jackson had possibly his best game of the season against the Warriors. He scored a career-high 36 points off the bench to go along with his six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.

Josh Jackson Scores Career-High 36 Points vs GSW

Jackson became the first Suns rookie to score 36 points since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2002 and is the first Suns rookie ever to include six boards and four assists. Since 1997, the only rookies to put up 36-6-4 are Jackson, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine and Kyle Kuzma. Jackson took pride in being counted among such elite company.

“It means a lot,” Jackson said. “It’s actually really cool to think about. But I feel like there’s another step I can take. I’m going to definitely try to take it.”

Josh Jackson Travels Coast-to-Coast to Hit Buzzer-Beater

Triano credits Jackson’s willingness to take coaching and his desire to grow as what assisted in the turnaround during his rookie campaign. 

“I just think his general approach to the game and practices,” Triano said. “He just seems to be really locked in and not playing at a frenetic pace. He’s slowed down a little bit. He picks and chooses when he can attack.”

Jackson is one of just five rookies this season averaging at least 12 points and four rebounds (Kyle Kuzma, Lauri Markkanen, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum). 

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer compared Jackson’s growth in the NBA to what he saw from him at Kansas.

“Changing speed and setting tempo have enabled Jackson to more effectively get to the basket, draw fouls, and create shots off the dribble,” O’Connor said. “His progress is relatively reminiscent of his surge in college, when he began to show flashes late in the season and into the NCAA tournament.”

Josh Jackson with the Powerful Rejection Against Damian Lillard

As Jackson finishes out his rookie season, his goal is simple: to continue improving.

“I feel pretty good, confident of course, but I feel like there’s another step I can take,” Jackson said. “Definitely improvements that I can still make to my game. Every game I’m still trying to improve no matter how many games we do or don’t have left.”

Jackson’s first year in the league may be a tale of two halves, but the 21-year-old’s future looks bright as he continues to grow and get more comfortable on an NBA court.