Josh Jackson better set up to succeed than previous KU wings
It’s a dangerous and somewhat foolish endeavor to put expectations of any kind on incoming college freshmen, but most of us just can’t help ourselves, can we?
Whether you’re talking about the type of insane hype that surrounded Andrew Wiggins — which would’ve been there wherever he chose to go to school — or the more tempered hopes put on guys like Wayne Selden, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden and dozens of others, fans, media members and even the coaches and players always seem to have some notion of what they expect to get from their shiny new Jayhawks.
That certainly is and will continue to be true of Josh Jackson, the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2016, who, minutes ago, picked Kansas over Arizona and Michigan State.
But it seems to me that whatever lofty expectations are tossed onto the shoulders of the 6-foot-7, 200-pound wing player who likely will fill Selden’s role in KU’s starting lineup next season, Jackson is in the best position of any KU wing in recent memory to live up to them.
Jackson will be set up to succeed better at Kansas than any wing player since Ben McLemore because of the supporting cast around him.
And, with all due respect to how great McLemore was as a red-shirt freshman during the 2012-13 season, the hype attached to him was not anything close to what we saw with Wiggins, Selden, Kelly Oubre and, of course, now Jackson.
Like McLemore, though, Jackson will be surrounded by a veteran group of quality players who not only know how to play for KU coach Bill Self but also how to navigate the wild world of college basketball.
That can only help — be it in terms of taking the target off of Jackson’s back or in the mentor-student capacity — as Jackson brings his insane athleticism, killer outside shot and all-around impressive game to Lawrence for what figures to be his only season of college basketball.
Just think about KU’s backcourt for a minute. From Day 1, Jackson will be playing next to Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, a senior and a junior who have the skills and mindset to make plays for themselves and others and the experience to help show Jackson the way and push him to match their focus, tenacity and hunger.
Picture this: Mason attacks the paint and kicks to a wide open Jackson on the wing. After the catch, Jackson will have a few options. 1. Knock down the open jumper with space and time to step into that smooth shot. 2. Attack the rim while the collapsing defense scrambles to recover. 3. Become a facilitator himself by driving to create and then kicking to Mason, Graham or Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, all of whom can bury open jumpers from anywhere on the floor.
Beyond those on-the-court, in-game advantages, Jackson also will benefit from playing under the leadership of a couple of strong seniors in Mason and Landen Lucas.
McLemore enjoyed similar riches by being plugged into a starting lineup that included seniors Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, Jeff Withey and Kevin Young, four Jayhawks who finished the previous season on the doorstep of a national championship.
While that team was crazy talented in terms of toughness and experience, the 2016-17 team figures to have the edge in terms of guards who can make plays off the bounce.
Just think about what having one lead guard like that (Sherron Collins) did for all of those players around him on the 2009-10 team. Aldrich, Xavier Henry, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and the Morris Twins all consistently got easy looks and open attack lanes because of the way Collins played the game.
If the combination of Mason and Graham can do that for Jackson — and, in turn, him for them — then KU’s newest one-and-done sensation could easily surpass the production of the others who came before him.
Here’s a quick look back at the hand dealt to each of KU’s high-profile wings in the past 10 years.
• Wayne Selden (2013-16) — Selden came in at the same time as Wiggins and played with the same lineup. What’s more, because of the presence of Wiggins himself, Selden was forced to play out of position his first season in Lawrence, which not only hurt his own growth and development but also created issues for the team. It was not until his junior year that Selden finally shined and, even then, he had plenty of moments when he disappeared. Though not as physical, Jackson seems to be coming to Kansas with a more advanced game than Selden brought.
• Kelly Oubre (2014-15) — Like Wiggins, Oubre held down the three spot in KU’s lineup and that, again, forced Selden to play the two. Although most of the key players on the roster were a year older than they were when Wiggins played, that did not necessarily make them a year wiser. Mason was much improved, but the Jayhawks replaced the experienced Tharpe with a rookie in Devonte’ Graham and still had a very young core group.
• Andrew Wiggins (2013-14) — Seven players in KU’s rotation during Wiggins’ lone year in Lawrence were sophomores or younger. That includes Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis. The only player on that KU team with any kind of veteran hue to him was junior guard Naadir Tharpe and, although I always thought Tharpe was a good leader, he was not the kind of guard who made others better with his play on the floor. Because of that, Wiggins often had to do too much and even though his insane talent led to some pretty darn good numbers (17 points, 6 rebounds in 33 minutes per game), you can’t help but wonder what those numbers might’ve been with a few tried and tested teammates taking off some of the pressure.
• Ben McLemore (2012-13) — After sitting out the 2011-12 season, McLemore was a star during the 2012-13 season but he benefitted big time from being eased into the role of hot shooter and highlight dunker because of the talent around him. Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford were tough proven perimeter players who were deadly in transition. And Jeff Withey and Kevin Young were so go inside (especially on the glass) that it allowed McLemore to roam free and play wherever he was most comfortable. Jackson could enjoy similar freedom.
• Josh Selby (2010-11) — Though more of a true guard than a wing, Selby’s issue (other than his personal shortcomings) was that he joined a team with too many quality veterans. Don’t get me wrong, if Selby had been as good as advertised, he would’ve played a ton and probably would’ve found his way into the starting lineup. But after a one-game explosion, the Baltimore guard who was ranked by some recruiting services as the No. 1 player in his class did little to back up that ranking and, instead, watched heady veterans like Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar, Travis Releford and Mario Little dominate the minutes on the perimeter.
• Xavier Henry (2009-10) — Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich were a dominant one-two, inside-out punch and everything else kind of fell in line around them. In fact, I’ve heard plenty of talk throughout the past several years from people wondering just how much more Henry could have shown/produced if he had been on a team like the one Wiggins was on. Instead of being leaned on as a primary piece, Henry spent most of his short KU career trying to fit in and fill a small role, which he did well.
• Brandon Rush (2005-08) — Many believed Rush was a one-and-done prospect when he came to Kansas, but he quickly showed that he needed at least a couple of seasons. A big reason for that was the fact that he came in with a bunch of guys who also were learning on the fly. Granted, that group made up the core of Bill Self’s 2008 national title team, but not having a single veteran who did not start out as a walk-on (Jeff Hawkins, Christian Moody and Stephen Vinson all played an unexpectedly big role on this young team) put Rush in the position of having to do more than he might have been ready for back in an era when other college teams still featured upperclassmen with some regularity.
• Julian Wright (2005-07) — Like Rush, Wright came in with that young core of future national champions and although Wright’s confidence and fearless approach to the game helped make him a lottery pick a year before his classmates won it all, Wright also would have benefitted from playing with a couple of veterans like Jackson will during the 2016-17 season.