In recent weeks I have broken down the importance of transfers Davion Mintz and Olivier Sarr. Mintz will provide a steadying presence in the backcourt as the true Freshman guards/wings develop early on in the season. There are obviously still questions surrounding Sarr’s eligibility, but he has the potential to be a SEC Player of the Year type performer. Still, whether he ends up being eligible or not, Kentucky will be in desperate need of some front court depth after both Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery decided to enter the NBA Draft. The primary candidate to eat up some of those minutes as the backup 5-man is Isaiah Jackson. Jackson, a 6’9” 200 pound freak athlete out of Waterford Mott High School in Michigan, is ranked as the 29th best prospect in the Class of 2020 in the 247 Composite Rankings and the 7th best Center in the class. He has been quoted as expressing interest in playing as a 3/stretch-4 type guy, but until his skill level develops, he will serve as a 5-man for the ‘Cats. Jackson has tremendous upside as a defender and finisher at the rim, but for all of the skill that Olivier Sarr has in the post, fans will need to manage expectations when it comes to how much Jackson is capable of scoring right away. There is a lot to like about his game already though, and we will focus on those aspects before breaking down his shooting mechanics and how he could exceed expectations as a Freshman.
I’ve spent this week breaking down as much Isaiah Jackson film as I could get my hands on. I typically like to watch full game video as it tells more of a full story, but that was essentially nowhere to be found (I recruited Michigan for a couple of years while I was coaching, and I had zero expectation of them actually uploading their games to Hudl). In the absence of actual game footage, I combed through every highlight tape from the last couple of seasons to try and get the best feel for what Isaiah Jackson brings to the table.
The first thing that jumps out at you about Jackson is his incredible athleticism. Not only is he an explosive leaper, but he is a very quick jumper and can get off the ground on his second jump extremely quickly which helps him as a rebounder and protecting the rim. While he is very thin still at this point, his overwhelming athletic ability makes up for some of that lack of physicality as he is able to rebound outside of his area and elevate over others going after the ball. He seems to have a knack for rebounding the ball at its highest point, which will translate well to the college level. In terms of his shot blocking, he displays more discipline than the typical dominant high school defender. We will start the breakdown right there, with his ability to block shots.
There have been a lot of elite shot blockers come through Rupp Arena in the Coach Calipari era such as Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, and Willie Cauley-Stein. I’m obviously not going to put Isaiah Jackson in that category, but he does have some of the physical tools and the necessary instincts to be a great shot blocker in Lexington. As I started to touch on earlier, Jackson is a very quick jumper which allows him to stay on the ground and not bite for shot fakes. He is able to wait until the ball is released and still go block it out of the air. You can really notice that in the clips above. Jackson rarely falls for shot fakes because he doesn’t need to jump until the player he is guarding actually releases the ball. He has also showcased good instincts in both high school ball and on the Nike EYBL circuit when it comes to timing his blocked shot attempts when rotating from help defense. His long arms and explosive leaping ability allow him to cover a lot of ground quick and block some shots that some players simply wouldn’t even be able to contest. On the EYBL circuit, Jackson blocked 41 shots in 18 games against some of the best competition in the country so it is clear that his rim protection translates to a high level. In order for Jackson to become a good on-ball defender at the SEC level and block some shots in the post he will need to improve his strength, but from day one you can expect some highlight reel blocks when he is off the ball and rotating to help.
Offensively, there is a lot of room for development still for Isaiah Jackson. He has always been a pretty high percentage finisher from the field thanks to his incredible athleticism and the way he attacks the rim trying to dunk everything. He runs the floor hard in transition which allows him to catch some lobs for easy buckets and can elevate to finish over defenders around the basket. There will certainly be some SportsCenter Top 10 worthy dunks too as he really does try to flush everything home first and foremost. When you try to compare and contrast him against Olivier Sarr around the basket (which is unfair to begin with since Sarr had three years of development under Danny Manning), you won’t find a ton of similarities. While Sarr has a full repertoire of back-to-the-basket post moves, Jackson isn’t necessarily a guy you are going to throw it to on the block and expect him to “go to work.” In 18 games on the Nike EYBL Circuit last summer, Jackson shot 53.7% from the field while scoring just under 11 points per game. He is an excellent offensive rebounder (44 offensive boards in those 18 games) and those extra chance opportunities are a major source of his scoring. His senior season stats aren’t available online, but as a Junior playing alongside Lamelo Ball at SPIRE Institute, Jackson averaged 14.9 points per game, so he certainly is capable of scoring the ball.
His back to the basket skill may still be developing and his shooting needs some work (more on that shortly), but one skill he has showcased is his ability to attack the rim off of one or two dribbles. Due to his quickness and athletic ability, Jackson can extend past his defender on short drives from the elbow/short corner areas and explode to the rim. You can expect to see him finish several plays in transition as well as attack some bigger defenders off the dribble in the half-court in order to score points early on in his career. Jackson plays very hard, is always a threat to catch an alley-oop, and will collect offensive rebounds. While he still has a lot of skill development to accomplish before he is a more consistent scorer, his athleticism alone should allow him to be a high percentage finisher in his role next season.
Without diving too deep into the weeds, I do want to touch on his shooting mechanics to showcase an area where he could make a big improvement just between now and the start of his freshman season. On the EYBL circuit, Jackson shot just 60.7% from the free throw line (37/61). He isn’t a bad shooter and his mechanics aren’t the worst by any means, but he has a lot of improving to do before I can envision Coach Calipari giving him any semblance of a green light to shoot away from the basket.
One of the simplest fixes (though breaking the muscle memory of a shooting stroke can be difficult) is to improve the ball track to his release. Instead of catching the ball and taking it straight to his release point, Jackson lets the ball travel across his body towards his left hip and then brings it back across his body to shoot. This makes his release point and timing inconsistent and therefore makes him an inconsistent shooter. Another issue with his timing is his footwork. He has a “loud” base, meaning that his feet move around too much before the release of his shot. Especially when you look at his right foot, his plant point is pretty inconsistent. He also really bows that leg in, to the point that his knees almost touch on some of his shots. If he can maintain a wider base, have his feet and hands set prior to catching the ball, and improve his ball track, I think he can quickly become a consistent 15-foot jump shooter. I don’t want to harp on his shooting too much simply because I don’t think it is something he will be asked, or really even allowed, to do much next season. He will earn his minutes through his rim protection and shot blocking, and his ability to finish at the rim offensively. Thankfully for Jackson, those are areas where he already excels.
Fans are more familiar with B.J. Boston and Terrence Clark because they are the 5-star wings that are expected to come in and score at a high level from day one. Fans know all about Olivier Sarr (hopefully because they follow me on Twitter and are jumping aboard my hype train) because he has become somewhat of a national story thanks to his pending eligibility waiver. Even Freshman Point Guard Devin Askew and the return of Keion Brooks have captured the attention of Big Blue Nation. However, I think Isaiah Jackson will play a very important role when it comes to the ceiling of this Wildcats team. That is obvious if Sarr is somehow ruled ineligible, but the ‘Cats will need backcourt depth regardless. Jackson’s ability to contribute 10-15 valuable minutes a game of rebounding, rim protection, and a couple of dunks will be exactly what the team needs when they don’t have Olivier Sarr on the court.