The last few weeks of Pacers basketball had been a ride to say the least. Not just some minor kiddie park rollercoaster you went to before you were tall enough to go to Six Flags, like full on “WHAT IS HAPPENING,” levels of absurdity, monotony, face-palm worthy moments, and intriguing upside all at the same time.
Pacers basketball baby!
If you had any sort of question still at this point about whether or not the Pacers need to be active at the trade deadline, allow the last few games to direct your decision-making process. Without any starters (Justin Holiday isn’t supposed to be a starter, but injuries suck), the Pacers beat the Golden State Warriors (albeit sans Draymond), and put together an incredibly fun, competitive, and mostly competent game against the league-leading Phoenix Suns.
For seemingly the first time in a few months, this team is fun to watch, even if I’m unsure what direction the organization views as the path forward.
The last two games, we got Torrey Craig snaking ball-screens to take 14 footers. We got Justin Holiday floaters, an absolute rarity. We got Keifer Sykes full-court pressing Steph Curry, taking heat checks off the dribble in overtime, and just exuding effort. Lance continues to skip up and down the court, whip every available corner skip while spinning, and injects so much energy on and off the bench.
The short-handed Pacers are a blast, and young players are getting much larger opportunities to step-up with freedom to make mistakes.
Chris Duarte has played phenomenal basketball all year, but has dealt with inconsistency and nagging injury since a hot start. However, since the Pacers Western Conference road trip started (January 17th, 4 games total), Duarte has thrived; he’s averaging 19.8 points/5.8 rebounds/4 assists and 2.3 stocks on 58.4% true-shooting while canning 50% of his 4.5 threes per game.
We’ve gotten to watch Duarte cook all season, but stride-change craft finishes at the rim and probing step-back/pull-up jumpers just hit differently when the team is forced to prioritize youth and the fringe players on the roster.
Who we’re here to talk about though is Isaiah Jackson, because this man is doing some really exciting things on the hardwood. We’ve seen him play some dominant stretches in the G-League (If you haven’t click here), but due to the injuries throughout the roster, IJax has been vaulted into the upper echelon of Indiana’s rotation, playing nearly half of his total NBA minutes in the last two weeks.
Jackson is still incredibly raw as a prospect, but flashes skill that just doesn’t currently exist on the roster, and to a degree hasn’t existed on the roster during this era of Pacers basketball.
If you have watched the Indiana Pacers for even as little as a 10 combined quarters over the last half-decade, the lack of vertical pop on the roster is consistently astounding. Myles Turner is a phenomenal vertical athlete, but more in the sense of his timing, second jump, and utilizing his length to become one of the best rim protectors in the NBA. He’s never really had that same sort of verticality off his front foot or ability to seamlessly transition from screen-setting to rolling to skying for lobs.
Myles is the closest the Pacers have been to having a lob-threat since... early Indy Roy Hibbert? A season of Josh McRoberts? (Never forget the McDonald’s All-American Game dunk contest) And even then, dicey.
Enter Isaiah Jackson.
Jackson effortlessly gets up for lobs, has really solid hands and hasn’t flashed issues with catching the ball, and the authority he throws down with is heavily appreciated.
Adding a dynamic vertical threat as a change of pace for the ball-handlers on the Pacers both now and moving forward is huge. While it’s just one tool in the toolbox for Jackson, it comes through for him on both ends.
He still has a tendency to be a bit jumpy and overly ready to contest; not necessarily a bad thing, just something that’s led to many a foul. However, the moments of verticality he’s displayed at the rim have been absurd. The hang time he gets is wild, just watch the first clip.
He’s literally blocking the ball while coming down because he jumped so high!
Ground Coverage & Events
That verticality plays into what is one of most notable bright spots in Jackson’s game and potential; his ground coverage.
Especially given the way that the NBA has shifted over the last 5 or 6 years, the court has notably warped and stretched, torquing defenses and twisting them into hand wringing decisions. Lateral quickness, size, length, and blending all three has quickly risen up the charts of hot commodities among NBA prospects.
IJax brings all that and then some to the table.
If you haven’t seen Jackson super closely and caught the wrong clips, you might think he’s a poor lateral athlete. He gets beat at the point of attack, can overshoot angles, and generally isn’t great with his positioning yet. And often, it just doesn’t fully matter when he’s able to make recovery plays like this.
His reactivity in seeing passing lanes and using his length to hound passing lanes has been impressive as well. You can’t dribble into space without the potential of Jackson fishhooking the ball. Lazy passes in his vicinity may as well be a shot on your own rim.
He has a lot to work on in learning the nuances of big man/pick and roll defense, but there are few players in basketball that possess the reaction time quick-twitch hip fluidity to actually make those kinds of plays. Once he starts reining in some of his tools and develops a better feel for team defense, he’s cooking with napalm.
These plays really show where he’s at. He has the ability to cover swaths of ground and is so reactive that he can beat plays to the spot.
His full on activity isn’t quite there yet, which isn’t a reflection of his motor, rather that he’s trying to do too much in a sense. He’s so focused on making plays at times that he takes himself out of them. Again, that’s not at all a negative! Jackson just turned 20, hasn’t even played 100 minutes in the NBA yet; take a breath, that’s what rebuilding/retooling/whatever Herb Simon and co. want to call right now, is about.
Perhaps the most enticing flashes and what sets Jackson apart from other is that lateral quickness we briefly touched on. He’s not just a “Yeah he can handle himself in ICE in a pinch” type of player.
Jackson can full-out switch most any ball-screens. It’s of course not perfect right now, because there is still a great deal for him to iron out with his footwork, positioning, using his hands and feet in tandem. But, man, just look at this. I am not sure how you can watch this and not come away with your interests piqued.
He’s struggled with fouling when switching, but again, it’s more about the framework. He’s showing the potential and possibility there.
Look no further than the Lakers game this past week when the Pacers went to an all-wings and IJax line-up and switched everything (along with some zone). They sparked a 7-0 run to get back into the game in the late 2nd quarter, thwarting the Lakers offense and getting out in transition to close the gap.
Jackson can be a bit too physical and had struggles with fouls last night against Phoenix when switching onto guards.
The process is there, it’ll just be about cleaning up his rough spots and smoothing over the edges. He’s showing the capability to do things that no one on the Pacers can and the bump in NBA minutes will only aide in his development.
Jackson has a ways to go as a player to be fully NBA ready. He’s not quite sure where to be on the court offensively, he needs to get stronger, he needs to hone many aspects of his game. But, Jackson’s emergence provides another bright spot in a season that has been remarkably lacking in them.
Jackson has the framework, how will he fill it out? How will his shot come along and can it open up face-up aspects of his skillset and a drive game? Is there more utility for him as a DHO operator and trigger man? Can he develop as a short-roll playmaker?
The uncertainty and expansiveness of potential is awesome.
Be patient with your expectations of him and enjoy the process of his development. It’s going to take time and he’s going to be a work in progress, but that’s part of the joy in watching basketball, just one that the Pacers haven’t particularly show-cased for quite some time.