Kansas freshman Josh Jackson never hid the fact that one of the biggest reasons he chose to play his college basketball in Lawrence was the opportunity to be coached — and pushed — by KU coach Bill Self.
And, so far, Jackson has received exactly what he hoped.
From the arm-around-your-shoulder, smiling-and-grinning players’ coach who can be everyone’s best bud to the taskmaster who will shout at a player not even involved in a drill just because the rest of the team is messing things up, Jackson already has experienced the many sides of Self during the first two weeks of practices.
In that short time, Jackson has seen that whether you’re a one-and-done phenom or an unrecruited walk-on, you’re treated the same by Self when you’re wearing KU practice gear.
“He knows that I’m kind of a special player,” Jackson admitted. “And he still never takes it easy on me, doesn’t kiss my butt. He’s really hard on me sometimes and I think I need that. It’s really good to have a coach like that.”
Always charismatic and charming in the public eye, Self can be the same with his players during practices. Of course, if things are not being executed to his liking, he also can flip the switch, sometimes in the same sentence, and turn into a relentless drill sergeant demanding excellence.
Jackson has seen both and has developed an appreciation for each of them. What he’s not sure of is what he’ll think of the side of Self teammates have promised him is still coming.
“I didn’t expect him to be quite like this,” Jackson said. “But what’s kind of scaring me is some of the players telling me, ‘Oh, this is nothing, he gets so much worse.’ I’m just waiting to see what that’s like.”
Asked for an indication of what exactly “quite like this” means, Jackson paused.
“There’s a lot of examples,” he joked. “But I’m not sure I can use his exact words on camera.”
So far this season, Jackson has found himself in moments of self-reflection long after practices have ended.
Most often those moments cover parts of the game that are new to him — KU’s offensive sets, Self’s defensive demands, approaching each day and every drill with the level of intensity required to survive at the Division I level. But just as often, Jackson finds himself thinking back on the coaching he got from Self that day. Whether it’s good or bad, calm or crazy, Jackson already has discovered he likes it.
“It was a little bit of a shock,” Jackson admitted. “But, at the end of the day, when I’m thinking about it in my room, I’m like, ‘Man, he was really hard on me today, but there’s a reason for it so I can handle it.’”
Handling it is nothing new for the 6-foot-8 freshman from Detroit by way of Prolific Prep in Napa, California. Facing high expectations at every stop of his career and with the white-hot spotlight shining brightest for the past few seasons, Jackson said he felt most at home when competing.
It’s always been that way. Even when he was a little pest trying to outclass his mom and dad in games of one-on-one as a 5-year-old, Jackson wanted and expected to win.
It was during those showdowns in the backyard that a fierce competitor was born. And the ups and downs, praise and criticism, hype and reality that Jackson has experienced in the dozen or so years since all have prepared him for this moment, his one shot at college basketball at the highest level.
“As a kid, I played against both of them a lot,” Jackson said of his parents, including mom, Apples Jones, who played college basketball at UTEP. “They would never take it easy on me. They would always foul me kinda hard, block my shot and just beat me all the time. It really made me mad because I always wanted to win and I felt like this 5-year-old kid was supposed to beat these adults but it wasn’t happening that way.”
Jackson’s breakthrough did not come until his teenage years. He was 13 or 14 when he finally defeated his mother, whom he credits for “hanging in there” for quite a while.
What became of the games after he finally beat her?
“Didn’t play after that,” he joked.
Today, Jackson is much older than 5 and far more skilled than the little boy who scrapped in the backyard all those years ago. But the challenge remains the same.
In a couple of weeks, the long, tall freshman who was regarded as the top recruit in the entire country just one year ago, will kick off his Kansas career on the biggest stage possible, with high-profile, marquee games against fellow blue blood programs Indiana in Hawaii and Duke in New York City.
One might wonder how Jackson possibly could be ready for such a challenge right out of the gate. He credits Self and his teammates for helping him get ready, especially backcourt mates Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason III.
“The best thing for me is coming to practice every day knowing those two are gonna go at me really hard,” Jackson said. “It’s not gonna do anything but make me better and I really like playing with them. Love it a lot.”
When asked for his welcome-to-college moment, Jackson listed two, one from senior forward Landen Lucas and another from Mason.
“A couple times Landen has set a couple screens on me, hit me really hard,” he began. “And a couple times trying to guard Frank, I’m running as fast as I can and he’s still a mile ahead of me. They’re just really far ahead of me right now, but I think I’m catching up a little bit.
“There were a few times over the summer where I was in bed and my body hurt so bad I couldn’t move and I was like, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ But I got through it and it’s coming easy now.”
For Mason and Graham, sending Jackson down that path was precisely the plan.
They heard about the accolades and knew the name. But, to them, Jackson was nothing more than another teammate when he hit campus last summer. And, one-and-done phenom or not, the only way they could ensure that he would help this team as much as possible was if the veterans who have been there and done that roughed him up a little early on.
“When you first come in, I’m trying to go at you,” said Graham, softening his words a bit for print. “At first we were battling during workouts and stuff like that, but we’ve become closer and he’s gonna be real good for us.”