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Commitment Analysis: Don’t label Tray Jackson a consolation prize

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The Detroit native ticks off all the boxes for Missouri at combo forward. Can the top-100 prospect find consistency under Cuonzo Martin’s tutelage?

Jon Lopez / Nike

In the wake of Tray Jackson’s midnight commitment to Missouri, recruitniks swiftly deemed a rarity in college basketball: a flip.

Technically, those scribes were right.

The combo forward started the day entrenched as Minnesota’s sole commitment. By 9 p.m., he’d announced via his Twitter account — one of several social media platforms where any mention of the Golden Gophers was stripped away — that he had backed off that pledge. Two hours after, Jackson sent out word he was in the fold for Mizzou.

While those events unfolded rapidly, zooming out and reviewing the scope of Jackson’s courtship makes the timing seem less jarring.

Flash back to Sept. 6, when news filtered out that the Golden Gophers would play host to the coveted combo forward that weekend, essentially jumping Missouri, which had set up an official visit for Sept. 22, in line.

At the time, the development appeared innocuous. Since early June, when Jackson had taken his first trip to Columbia, assistant coach Cornell Man had methodically maneuvered MU into pole position. Oklahoma, an early favorite, dropped away. Xavier, who had been the Tigers’ stiffest competition, spent August locking down Daniel Ramsey, Zach Freemantle and Dieonte Miles. If coach Travis Steele still wanted Jackson, finding space in a crowded collection of frontcourt pieces would prove tricky.

By early September, Jackson, who is the No. 82 prospect nationally, looked poised to wrap up the process. He’d already trekked to Seton Hall, and Virginia Tech remained in contact, but sources with knowledge of his thought process were unequivocal in their assessment.

“Missouri is the favorite,” one told me before Jackson headed off to be feted in the Twin Cities.

Four days later, the idea of Jackson was simply burning an official visit imploded when he committed to coach Richard Pitino. The ramifications were easy to grasp. To most, Jackson was viewed as an insurance policy if Missouri missed out on E.J. Liddell. Yet a source close to the Missouri program had consistently reiterated that the staff saw both Liddell and Jackson on equal footing.

“He’s more important than anyone else,” the source said just days before Jackson picked Minnesota. “He and E.J. are guys we need bad.”

A postmortem quickly revealed the source of MU’s agony: Minnesota assistant coach Kyle Lindsted. Linsted joined Pitino’s staff in May, jumping from Wichita State, where he had worked since 2015 — an ascent spurred, as always, by a crucial recruiting tie. Over 15 years, Linstead coached Sunrise Christian Academy, transforming the modest the private school, which was founded by his father on the fringes of Wichita, into a regional prep power. During his tenure, the Buffaloes cranked out 35 prospects who signed with NCAA Division I programs, most notably Oklahoma sharpshooter Buddy Hield.

While he’s now in Minneapolis, Lindsted is obviously revered at his former home, which just so happens to be where Jackson is currently spending a post-graduate season after reclassifying to join the class of 2019.

“Lindsted is the one who got him,” a source knowledgeable of Jackson’s recruitment told me at the time. “They had the best of everything he’s been to so far regarding his officials.”

The source also passed on another nugget that was worth filing away.

“I’m a little surprised he pulled the trigger so early,” they said.

The implication: Jackson seemed prime to commit, and Minnesota deftly swooped in. Whether that pledge would hold up until, though, was an open question. Those assessments, however, were of little consolation to Mizzou, which saw its margin for error evaporate if Liddell passed on the Tigers.

The hypothetical became a sobering reality three weeks later when the Belleville (Ill.) East product and top-50 prospect picked Ohio State. The night Liddell made his choice, there were no ready-made backup options. Whatever plan Cuonzo Martin and his staff assembled, the pace of operations didn’t unfold swiftly. The only notable development involved Kobe Brown, a combo forward out of Alabama that Martin watched and offered on Oct. 11.

(Note: Brown took an official visit, his fourth, to Columbia on Sunday.)

As we fixated on new targets identified by the staff, Mann worked quietly in the background to keep Jackson in play. He could lean on the enduring relationship he’d built with Jackson, who he’d tracked for more than a year. Mann was also longtime friends with Derrick McDowell, who coached Jackson at Detroit Western International. The legwork positioned Mann to pounce when he learned of Jackson’s decision to switch classes. “We’re going to be on you,” Jackson said Mann told him.

Accounting for all those factors makes it easy to see Jackson’s decision wasn’t a rapid change of heart. When I asked a source on Friday about the odds of Jackson winding up in Columbia, the answer offered was unequivocal. “It’s gonna happen,” I was told.

Three minutes later, those words indeed proved prophetic.

Now, let’s look at what Mizzou has on its hands.

EYBL Profile | Tray Jackson, CF, 6-8, 200 pounds

Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks ORTG Usage eFG% FG% 3FG% FT%
Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks ORTG Usage eFG% FG% 3FG% FT%
13.3 4.8 1.0 0.6 1.1 101.5 25.4 50.2 46.3 30.8 68.2
Open Look Analytics

What does Jackson do well?

While combo forward joined our basketball lexicon almost two decades ago, the definition has always felt amorphous. Naturally, a shorthand filled the void: a post player who played on the wing and rained down 3-pointers. Yet as spacing widens and lineups shrink, nuance matters.

Taking four minutes to watch the footage of Jackson is a prime example of how the contours have shifted.

The only cutups showcasing Jackson working are in the paint feature him stationed in the short corner or sailing in from the weakside to flush stickbacks. Meanstreets, his EYBL squad, relied on a basic four-out system that moves Jackson around to locations that are familiar in Missouri’s pro-style scheme: the slot on the opposite wing, deep in corners and the elbow.

While his station changes, Jackson’s shooting mechanics are relatively consistent. Sure, his shot load is low — starting near his waist — and loops upward, but he elevates the ball near his brow, keeps his left elbow tucked, guide hand on the side and shooting palm under the ball. The result: a clean release, high finish and a ball tracing a parabolic path before landing softly.

Yet Jackson sank just 30.8 percent of 3-point attempts — accuracy that doesn’t line up with sound mechanics. Missouri is banking on the latter, that the big man’s fundamentals will translate into improved percentages after piling up reps in the practice gym. Enticing, too, is the fact Jackson can make shots on the move, whether it’s as trail shooter or pulling up on secondary break if his defender backs up and yields too much ground.

Jontay Porter showed last year that MU’s offense creates perimeter shots for bigs out of roll-and-replace actions or inverting the floor and involving the big in split cuts. Jackson’s mobility and shooting mechanics make those a natural fit.

The ability to stretch defenses with jump shooting is a prerequisite, but what makes Jackson alluring is his ability to use his jumper to set up dribble penetration.

If you can, rewind clips where Jackson is facing Drive Nation, which features Drew Timme, a top-50 talent out of Texas. In their May meeting, Jackson used his face-up jumper to lure onto unfamiliar terrain: guarding a dribbler on the wing. Isolating Timme in space played to Jackson’s strong suit. A shot fake put Timme on the balls of his feet, followed up by a shoulder fake to tilt the post’s weight to his lead foot. With Timme off balance, Jackson could rip and drive left, exploiting his footspeed to finish at the rim.

On possessions where Jackson played out of the corner, he would attack the baseline as bigs scrambled to close down space, often finishing with a reverse layup. And when the ball was reversed, he’d catch, rip and go from the top of the key. Those abilities help Jackson pass a crucial litmus test for modern bigs: can you create offense away from the rim?

As pace-and-space systems have gained traction, a litmus test for bigs is whether they can create offense away from the rim and off the dribble — a threat that not only lifts a big off the baseline but forces them to stay an arm’s length away. MU’s offense can exploit the close proximity through dribble handoff actions to switch a smaller defender onto a forward barreling toward the rim.

While Jackson’s frame isn’t overly long — his wingspan is just 6-foot-9 — it’s lean enough to add more mass, giving him the girth to bully smaller defenders on the block, hold his ground on the interior and win battles for 50-50 balls on the glass. Polishing is in order, but Jackson’s suite of skills fits MU’s core principles: perky tempo, long, interchangeable lineups and the ability to switch multiple positions.

Where is his room for growth?

While Jackson’s diversity and positional flexibility spark excitement, people who keep close tabs on the prep scene in Michigan sounded a note of caution: Will Jackson’s motor hum consistently?

A common refrain from those who track prospects in the Mitten is that Jackson’s ceiling is among the highest in the state, but too often his work rate on the class correlated with how frequently shots were dropping. Jackson’s explosive verticality resulted in emphatic rejections at the rim one possession, while his slipshod focus might lead to a botched rotation and layup the next time down the floor.

In Columbia, the debacles are more likely to stick in Martin’s craw than the flights of fancy are to delight. By now, it’s well known that defensive gaffes and passivity fighting for loose balls and rebounds will earn you a seat on the bench and a scolding in Martin’s husky baritone.

Now, scouts noted that Jackson appeared to take significant strides this summer. Sure, mistakes manifested themselves, but they were the outgrowth of Jackson trying to make a play — hunting for blocks or create a deflection in a passing lane — than through apathy. Or maybe it’s no coincidence that Jackson’s emerging tenacity coincided with blossoming offensive production.

Will that ebb, though, if Jackson hits turbulence translating at the collegiate level? “Is he going to stay in the fight?” one scout told me. “Because Cuonzo won’t stand for a guy pouting.”

What role can he play?

Before Porter went down with a knee injury, the runway for early minutes in Columbia looked clear. Who knows, though? Perhaps Porter decides it’s better to jump to the NBA rather than risk another injury by rehabbing and returning to Mizzou. Regardless, Kevin Puryear will be graduating, opening up minutes in a reserve role.

Assuming Porter and Puryear move on, Jackson inherits the point-forward spot, only with the added dimension of a handle that lets Martin and Mann order from a broader menu of sets, such as a Horns action where slight tweaks allow Jackson to cut, shoot or drive from the high post. Or the Tigers could borrow from the Pitch series concocted by Fred Hoiberg, Mann’s old boss at Iowa State and whose brain he picked ahead of last season, to create favorable switches.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jackson’s versatility as a shooter, driver, and cutter bestows flexibility to the staff to construct their offense in myriad ways to fit seamlessly into the collective. It’s always a risk to turn a player into a totem, but for Mizzou fans still wondering what positionless basketball entails, Jackson is the best example Martin can provide about the heading his program is on.