Kentucky freshman forward Isaiah Jackson may be known as a rim-running big man with elite talent on the defensive end of the floor, but he grew up wanting to play with the ball in his hands as a primary guard.
Boasting solid ball-handling, passing and shooting skills, Jackson spent time on the perimeter early on and even floated out there at times during his senior campaign at Waterford Mott High School.
“He can actually do more things than people know,” Jackson’s former high school coach, David McGlown, told KSR at the time of his commitment. “For me, he can bring the ball up, he makes the right pass, he can throw a no-look pass. He hasn’t been called upon to do some of those things at the other schools he’s been at, but at my school, I’m going to give him a little more freedom to open up his game. He can knock down jumpers, he can make the right pass, if he gets a rebound, he can take it coast-to-coast, he’s not a bad ball handler. Just an all-around player who loves to play defense.”
As a young basketball player, Jackson didn’t want to be a “big” at all. Instead, he wanted to play a role where he could have the ball in his hands and help make plays for his teams at every level.
“I always wanted to be a guard. I never wanted to play big, to be honest,” Jackson told the media Tuesday. “… Guards, I feel like they always have the ball in their hands. With bigs, it’s like bigs don’t really touch the ball. We really just get rebounds and play defense and stuff like that.”
Knowing his versatility and some of the guard skills he possesses, McGlown gave him the green light to bring the ball up the floor and shoot at Waterford Mott. With the NBA trending toward becoming a shooters-only league and stressing versatility with bigs, it was a freedom Jackson feels prepared him for his time at Kentucky and eventually as a pro.
“With [McGlown] telling me to play out on the perimeter [as a senior], it helped me a lot with my IQ. I feel like I can pass the ball really well and my IQ is just starting to pick up better than what it was. I feel like that helped me a lot. … It was just something I always wanted to do. I just took it and ran with it pretty much.
“Me playing guard, I feel like I can show people that I can play guard. I’ve got the IQ, I’ve been working on my shot, I can dribble the ball and things like that.”
As talented and capable as he is, Jackson understands he won’t be running point guard or jacking shots up from three at will this season in Lexington. Instead, his role has already been carved out as a superstar shot blocker.
“I mean, he is a special, special shot blocker,” UK assistant Jai Lucas said of Jackson in recent weeks. “I think he is probably one of the ones that is going to surprise a lot of people this season. … I think he’s a name that people will start to talk about and mention as we start playing games.”
“You do what you do best, and what he does is rebounds and blocks shots,” assistant coach Bruiser Flint added. “I think he will be a really, not a good defensive player, a really good defensive player. I think the sky’s the limit for him. … I think he’s got a chance to be really, really good.”
“That guy is a pro, he’s a professional,” standout freshman Brandon Boston Jr. said. “He blocks every shot. He has a seven-foot – I don’t even know how long – wingspan and blocks every shot. He always rebounds, he just does what he has to do at the five position. He can shoot the midrange, can shoot the three if needed. He’s just a good all-around player.”
When asked about the high praise he has received and the buzz building regarding his defensive abilities, Jackson said it’s a gift he was born with.
“Yeah, I sort of have a knack for it. It’s like natural,” Jackson said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s something that I guess I was born to do it pretty much. It just comes naturally. I don’t even think about it; it just happens. It’s weird.”
Another player that had a similar gift as a shot block? Former Kentucky star Anthony Davis, who also grew up playing guard but developed into a defensive-minded superstar big.
With a similar basketball timeline, versatility as a player, and body, Jackson says he mirrors his game after Davis and hopes to make a similar impact in Lexington.
“I watched a lot of Anthony Davis, just how he played because we’re built the same. We’re tall, long, can block shots and do everything,” Jackson said. “I mean, me growing up, to be honest, I was always a Kentucky fan so when Anthony Davis got here, I was always watching Kentucky.
“Seeing the stuff he did was crazy, and I feel like I can sort of mirror my game after him in away. So, I try to look at him sometimes.”
Jackson, a 6-foot-10, 206-pound forward out of Pontiac, Mich., was named to the watch list for the 2021 Karl Malone Award last week, an award presented annually to the nation’s best power forward. As a senior at Waterford Mott, the freshman forward averaged 19.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, 7.7 blocks, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game en route to Michigan All-State Division I Team (Associated Press) honors. The Mr. Michigan Basketball finalist was also a three-time All-State selection and a four-time defensive player of the year in his conference.