The 2020-2021 Kentucky Wildcat basketball team is officially on campus and has begun workouts to prepare for the season ahead. And while there is still some uncertainty about what exactly the season will look like, some games will eventually be played. And because of it, it’s never too early to know the new players on this roster even better.
Therefore, in addition to all the long-form articles KSR did in the spring, we’ll also spend the next few weeks trying to track down other people who know these new players well, to get even further insight on them. For the incoming high school players, it might be a high school or AAU coach, and for the college transfers, maybe an assistant or head coach who went against them this past season.
Here are the pieces we’ve previously done:
Now it’s time to look at another of UK’s freshmen, Isaiah Jackson
Mike Faletti will never forget his first memory of Isaiah Jackson.
It was the summer of 2016 and after spending years with the University of Detroit coaching staff, Faletti had transitioned back into the grassroots game. He had taken a role with “The Family” a prominent Detroit area AAU team, which lists current Charlotte Hornet Miles Bridges and two-time All-American Cassius Winston among its alumni.
Still, that day wasn’t about all the program’s past stars, but instead on an eighth grader whose tape he watched that afternoon. The kid was tall and skinny. But he had skills that jumped off the video – both literally and figuratively.
The kid’s name was Isaiah Jackson.
“I was obviously very impressed with his highlight tape,” Faletti remembered. “He was obviously very athletic, very long in ninth grade. That really jumped out to me.”
Even four years ago those skills stood out to Faletti, and my hunch is that they’ve probably stood out to every Kentucky fan who has watched Jackson’s highlight tapes since he committed back in November. Jackson is crazy athletic. He plays with a great motor. And he is an elite rim protector.
And as it turns out, it’s those skills which could largely define Kentucky’s upcoming season.
Look, nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room, but there is a chance Olivier Sarr won’t be eligible whenever Kentucky takes the court for their season opener. Admittedly, John Calipari is confident that Sarr will eventually get a waiver to play right away, but with the NCAA, you just never know.
Which is why Jackson is so important to this team.
If Sarr is eligible, then Jackson is a luxury, a secondary big, who can play with reckless abandon in a number of different roles. He can either alongside Sarr, as his back-up, or likely in both roles. Should the two play together, they would be the most formidable shot blocking tandem in college hoops.
Spending some time on this lovely quarantine Friday watching some film on Kentucky commit Isaiah Jackson. Biggest takeaway: If the Wildcats can get Olivier Sarr eligible they will be a TERRIFYING shot blocking team with Sarr and Jackson at the rim. Good luck to their opponents
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) May 8, 2020
But without Sarr it means that Jackson will be the team’s primary rim protector and energy guy down low. The Wildcats have answers to every other question on the roster, specifically on the offensive end (thanks, BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke!). But defensively, they will need Jackson to be a warrior down low. Thankfully that description describes Jackson to a tee.
One moment in particular stands out to Faletti.
“I remember one game, this was to go to Peach Jam our 17 and under year, so it would’ve been last year,” Faletti said. “We were playing Spiece Indy Heat. And we were only up one point with about I’d say 10 seconds left. And if we had lost that game, we probably weren’t going to Peach Jam.”
“Isaiah blocked three shots in the last 10 seconds. He was so quick off his feet. It was unbelievable. We won the game and went to Peach Jam. I think that was probably the most impressive moment I saw from him in our three years together, just how quick he was off his feet. Great timing as well.”
Looking ahead, Faletti admits that there is plenty Jackson needs to work on.
Strength will obviously be one, as Jackson was last listed by 247 Sports at 6’9, but just 200 lbs. (his official measurements from UK haven’t come out yet). Secondly, he needs to work on his jump shot. While his athleticism and defense will take him a long way, to play in the NBA, he will need to consistently hit from 15-20 feet. And finally, Faletti did admit that Jackson can at times be a little foul prone. That however, mostly comes with the aggressive nature with which he plays defense though.
Still, those are fixable problems, and the one thing you can’t teach are intangibles. Thankfully for Kentucky fans, Jackson has those in spades. Those intangibles are mostly all the things we’ve already talked about – defense, energy and toughness. But there’s another one as well, which is especially important when playing at Kentucky.
That intangible? Being a good teammate.
At this point, we all know that John Calipari likes to say that “Kentucky isn’t for everyone” and in his defense, it really isn’t. Some players in recent years have struggled with the concept that “everyone has to eat” or the idea that – for the first time in their lives – they aren’t the focal point or featured player of the team.
That won’t be an issue for Jackson though, who has literally spent his entire high school career playing on loaded teams and alongside other elite teammates. Through it all – at multiple high schools, and in one of the best AAU programs in America – he has continued to find a way to contribute across the board and help his teams win. Remember, Jackson spent his junior year playing alongside LaMelo Ball at Spire Academy. Therefore, he has the unique perspective of both playing inside a fishbowl with millions watching from the outside (no different than in Lexington), while also not necessarily being the full center of attention.
Then there was his time with “The Family.” It was a loaded program that was good enough to capture a 15-and-under Peach Jam title a few years back, and filled out its roster with one high major player after another during Jackson’s time with the program. A look at their 2018 team shows not only Jackson, but also a handful of others who ended up playing high-major basketball, including Rocket Watts (Michigan State), Jalen Terry (Oregon), Carlos “Scooby” Johnson (Butler), Romeo Weems (DePaul) and Myron Gardner (began his career at Georgetown and eventually transferred).
So can Isaiah Jackson fit in alongside BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke and the rest of a loaded Kentucky roster?
The answer is absolutely.
“Isaiah always wants to play with and against the best players in the country,” Faletti said.
“He will not have a problem fitting in whatsoever at Kentucky, whatever role they ask him to play.”