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Isaiah Jackson being a bigger factor isn’t just about being bigger

On the micro-skills that could make a big difference.

NBA: Indiana Pacers-Media Day Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Although somewhat lost in the commotion of muscle watch, Isaiah Jackson has also subtly dropped breadcrumbs here and there as to what might look different about his game, in addition to his body, when preseason play begins on Wednesday. In all likelihood, those changes won’t pass the eye test as immediately as whether the strength he added to his legs and mid-body can sturdy him against opposing wrecking balls around the basket, but contextualizing his quotes with film from last season should provide a baseline for how to monitor if he is making a bigger impact with, and independent of, his bigger size.

Ball-handling

Jackson: “Coach told me last summer he sees me as a guy who can get the ball off a rebound and push it myself.”

This is interesting from the perspective of cost-benefit analysis. Rick Carlisle is correct in his assessment. During Jackson’s freshman season at Kentucky, he flashed some glimmers of upside to potentially handle on the fast-break. But, that’s a key distinction.

Here, for example, he isn’t a grab-and-go big, slicing the full-length of the court against defense. He’s a snatch-and-go event creator, throwing the ball out ahead of himself as he charges down the floor in a straight line without anyone nipping at his heels.

Under those circumstances, changing directions isn’t necessary, and he only has to read one defender while covering a shorter distance, initiating the break from just outside the opposing team’s free throw line after collecting his own block. In Las Vegas, by comparison, when it seemed as though he had been granted some leeway to snatch the ball off the glass and handle, he (literally) ran into trouble while attempting to maneuver through tight space without an odd-man advantage.

To this point, if there isn’t a clear path for him to get to the rim, he also isn’t really a mobile hub in terms of immediately flowing into hand-offs and creating space with contact, as Domantas Sabonis once did. As such, while there may be some merit to testing the limits of what he can do with the ball in his hands when he manufactures steals, it seems as though the potential is there for diminishing returns with regard to doing so off rebounds — especially when considering the value he adds in running the floor as a play finisher.

Just look at this possession against Cleveland. Jackson never touches the ball, but his commitment to sprinting down the middle of the floor sucks in the defense, effectively serving as more of an earned assist to Buddy Hield than the actual recorded assist.

Plus, with T.J. McConnell likely steering the ship for the second unit, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive for him to be spacing the floor around Jackson, rather than feeding the ball to Jackson. As far as that partnership goes, if the bouncy 20-year-old actually shows signs of burgeoning ball skills, what might be more interesting is the potential for him to experiment with taking opposing bigs off the dribble in the half-court. During summer league, he attempted to turn the ball downhill away from the window dressing of a pindown into a hand-off, but his right-to-left cross (this is his go-to, as he generally prefers driving to his left) once again eluded him in traffic.

Granted, the scrunched spacing from Andrew Nembhard and Bennedict Mathurin made it easier for the defense to dig down on the drive, but imagine the possibilities of weaponizing him to catch the ball on the move at closer range to the basket. As in, here’s an action to consider: playing pick-and-roll with McConnell and instead of a re-screen, hand-off to Jackson. Just want to speak that into existence.

Screening Technique

Jackson: “A lot of times, I screen and just roll right away. But since we’ve been playing and stuff, (Tyrese) has been telling me to set more screens and hold them and then roll, so he can get downhill and distribute.”

As a screener, Jackson has a tendency to waver between two extremes. When he’s intentional with setting picks that stick, he trends toward being extra, unnecessarily sticking out his elbows to hit contact as if he were trying to create a video montage of ref highlights.

Oh hey, here it is.

Last season, for point of reference, he committed more non-charge offensive fouls per 100 possessions than any other big on Indiana’s roster (1.33), while also finishing in a tie for third among all NBA players who logged at least 500 minutes of action, trailing only Dewayne Dedmon (1.43), Robin Lopez (1.36), and Tony Bradley (1.33).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is how often he slips on deep rolls — which, in a way, actually exacerbates the frequency by which he gets whistled for illegal contact, given that he isn’t holding on that many screens. Instead, he typically sprints to the basket out of a forward pivot. That creates separation for him, but doesn’t necessarily do the same for the ball-handler, as can be seen here with Haliburton leveraged into a wide-angle floater.

What’s arguably more notable about that possession though is the missed opportunity in the lane. With Haliburton snaking from left-to-right, Jackson is effectively just loitering in space when he could be carving out a path for deeper penetration with a Gortat screen, sealing off Al Horford.

In that way, Jackson’s improvement as a screener isn’t just a matter of quality; it’s about mastering the nuance of what type of screen to set and when to set it. For example, with San Antonio pushing the action to the sideline, Haliburton needs Jackson to change the angle on the screen before making contact in order to access the other side of the floor.

Otherwise, with Jackson struggling to defrost from the ice coverage, Haliburton has to do most of the heavy lifting, either manipulating the dropping big into a 2-on-1 scenario or attempting to play keep-away through the sprawling tentacles of help-side defenders.

Overall, Haliburton notched 23 assists in combination with Jackson at the rim last season, which is only four fewer than the number Malcolm Brogdon tossed to Domantas Sabonis (27) in over twice as many minutes. Moving forward, look to see if Jackson can return the favor, using screening techniques to assist Haliburton in getting to the rim.

Communication

Jackson, on what he learned playing opposite from Myles Turner: “Myles is a shooter, so learning how to — like with him popping off screens — tell the other guard to peel or even getting out there myself to contest and moving my feet.”

This is somewhat new territory for Jackson. According to Synergy, he only defended nine pick-and-pop possessions last season that resulted in usage and most of those came against one player: Joel Embiid. Still, for a team that moved increasingly toward switching in the wake of the trade deadline last season, what arguably stands out most about this particular quote is the implication that the Pacers, at least in certain situations, may not fully switch out against 1-5 screening actions as much unless called for as a late-switch, which means a lot will be required of their young big with regard to communication as well as feel.

Following Day 2 of training camp, Tyrese Haliburton spoke to the potential for the team to flex between different coverages, implementing both switching and drop, depending upon which group is playing — be it lineups with two bigs or, sometimes, even four guards alongside one of several options at center.

“It calls for a lot of versatility,” he explained. “But that’s a lot of responsibility for guys, being able to take that on the right way and understand time, score, and personnel on the floor.”

Occasionally, teams will have a specific cue for when the guard should late-switch (i.e. veering into the roller or peeling back to the popper), such as when the ball gets below the free throw line. In this case, the fact that Jackson specifically used the words “tell the other guard” indicates that the Pacers want the defensive anchor on the floor to be responsible for determining when doing so is necessary. This, from late in the season against the Sixers, is a perfect example. Initially, Oshae Brissett is trying to chase, but he gets snagged by the screen. At that point, Jackson has no choice but to take the ball and should be telling Brissett to run the seam in front of Embiid.

But, that’s not what happened. Rather than communicating the late-switch, Jackson ends up recovering a beat too slow to Embiid, as Brissett, meanwhile, stays in pursuit of Harden.

All of which is to say that, while surely a large part of the motivation for Jackson gaining weight was to be able to hold his spot against more imposing frames, what Embiid goes to show is that the 20-year-old’s read of the floor and how he tells his teammates to react will be just as important, if not more so.