Eleven months ago, Tray Jackson had to scrape to stay on the grid.
In late June 2017, the 16-year old combo forward out of Michigan was a lithe lefty with a developing jumper and a smooth handle but was boxed in when it came to minutes. At the time, he hoped a move to The Family Detroit — a long-established grassroots program affiliated with Nike’s EYBL circuit — might yield extended looks from high-major programs. He only found another logjam behind Big Ten-bound recruits in Trevion Williams and Gabe Brown.
At summer’s end, one of the youngest prospects in the 2018 class returned to Detroit Western International with a modest offer list of Horizon League and MAC programs: Detroit, Eastern Michigan, Oakland, Loyola Chicago, Cleveland State, Northern Kentucky and LIU Brooklyn. Cobbling together a breakout senior campaign in the city’s Public School League might still keep him lost in the shuffle as a member of arguably the state’s deepest wells of talent in nearly three decades.
“He just got buried,” said Steve Bell, who has been scouting prep talent across Michigan for 22 years. “Other guys were in more prominent situations, getting more looks and not nearly as young.”
So Jackson plotted out a detour, a route that will take him to a suburb of Wichita, Kan., and on to the campus of a high-major school: reclassifying into the class of 2019 and spending a prep year at Sunrise Christian Academy.
“I felt like if I played with my correct age group, that would open up more doors for me,” Jackson said during an interview last Thursday. “I wasn’t focused on getting any more offers. I was focused on what I needed to do to become better. I knew everything else would come if I got better and stronger.”
As the rumor about his self-imposed gap year leaked out, it reached the ears of Missouri assistant coach Cornell Mann, a Motor City native with deep connections in the city and state after serving on staffs at Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Oakland. “He actually reached out to me last summer,” Jackson said. But when Mann confirmed Jackson was putting off college for a year, the tenor changed.
“‘We’re going to be on you hard,’” Jackson recalled Mann telling him. “He’s been in touch with me ever since.”
The delay also produced a belated do-over.
Bestowed a new chance to make a mark on the EYBL, Jackson assembled a stellar spring and summer for Chicago-based Meanstreets. Playing alongside fellow Michigander and blue-chipper Romeo Weems, Jackson broke into the top-150 nationally and picked up offers from the likes of DePaul, Xavier, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Boston College, Creighton and, as of June 6, Mizzou.
Even better, Mann’s legwork got Jackson down to Columbia last week for an unofficial visit, the big man’s first to a power program. Pursuing Jackson also expands MU’s options ahead of turnover at the position next spring when Kevin Puryear exhausts his eligibility and Jontay Porter likely stays in the NBA draft pool. The courtship might also be a long-sought breakthrough for Mann and the Tigers in the Mitten.
“It’s dawned on Tray the kind of player he can become,” Bell said. “He could have stayed in the 2018 class. He could have gone someplace local like Oakland and been an all-league player there. If he were staying in Michigan, he’d be a top-three guy in the state and a top-50 guy nationally. It’s all seemed to click for him and he’s got the right perspective.”
'A true offensive threat’
Standing 6-foot-8, Jackson’s stature would seem to mark him for life on the block and maybe some freedom to operate at the elbow. Tipping the scales at just 200 pounds, though, the now-17-year-old isn’t husky enough for low-post jostling.
Instead, he belongs to just about every position except point guard, although he did that job in a pinch at times for coach Derrick McDowell and Western this past season.
Over the course of the grassroots season, Meanstreets offered Jackson the chance to step out and operate on the wing in a version of a four-out that infuses plenty of dribble hand-off actions. “We try to keep it simple,” Jackson said. ”I can’t tell you all the plays, but that’s where we start. We want to space the wings and really just try to get you moving.“
The lefty’s diversity is easy to spot on film, too.
On one possession, Jackson might operate out of a pick-and-pop. The next, he might take a pitch back from a guard after a weave at the top of the key. At times, he sets up shop low in the corners as a floor spacer. Or you stash him in the short corner to prowl for dump offs or scrap buckets on the offensive glass.
Tray Jackson — EYBL Statistics
Two traits jump out, too. First, Jackson’s shooting mechanics are sound. Even if his shot pocket starts a little low, his load, hand position and release — the ball coming cleanly off two fingers — are consistent enough that he shot 43 percent from 3-point range on the EYBL.
While he doesn’t explode into his shot, Jackson can take a clean catch and get into his shot in a myriad of situations, whether it’s a catch-and-shoot, a flare off of a pick-and-pop, or a trail 3 on a secondary break.
“There were some mechanics” to work out, Jackson said. “There used to be a little bit of a hitch in it. But the biggest thing has been consistency. I could make shots and do it in workouts, but in a game, could I make two shots out of four and when I needed to?”
Refining his jumper only made his ability to play off the bounce more potent. On hard closeouts, Jackson can attack the middle of the floor — usually going to his left — or along the baseline. Watching film, you can see him becoming more assertive as the EYBL season wore on, using shot fakes to get bigs lured to the perimeter airborne or exploiting scramble situations against smaller wings caught in a rotation.
“I’ve always had a good first step,” Jackson said. “I kind of needed it back when I wasn’t that consistent of a shooter. That’s what I’d do. Drive the ball. Now it’s keeping my head up, seeing what the defense is doing and playing fast when I see the right gap.”
Transferring to Western and McDowell’s tutelage also proved essential.
McDowell is a respected presence in Detroit‘s coaching circles. While he had stints as an assistant coach at Detroit and EMU, he’s known for a largely successful run at Detroit Redford, which finished as runner-up in Class A — the state’s large-school division — in 1997 and 2002. In 2015, four years after taking over the job, he led Western to a Class A crown.
His template: a 3-out, 2-in motion.
While the system teaches bigs to operate on the block, it doesn’t fence them in. Instead, they move between the elbow and post, screening for one another, hunting mismatches and reading the defense. They can also fill gaps in spacing, such as at the top of the key when perimeter players are cutting. Or they can set a myriad of screens — down, back, flare — to spring wings lose.
“My high school coach was big on that, being able to post up down low,” Jackson said. “Just being able to do what I need to do to space the floor and find openings. Just knowing what the next play or next decision is going to be.”
To a degree, the motion is a continuity offense that can build in looped patterns and basic actions, but the system isn’t premised on sets. Instead, it relies on players diagnosing defenses in real time and sharpening a player’s IQ along the way. For Jackson, though, McDowell’s system poured a foundation that had been lacking.
“His more traditional posts have just been screeners and rebounders,” Bell said. “Doing a little bit more of that his junior year probably helped Tray, because he was absolutely allergic to rebounding before he got to Western. He was a floater and kind of soft.”
Grooming Jackson as a post first, though, made finding gaps out of the short corner or cutting into voids second nature for a forward who can still finish with authority around the rim. Factor in Jackson’s solid work rate on the glass (9.2 OR%), and you have a big who can find a way to score when jumpers aren’t falling or he can’t exploit mismatches.
“He’s become a true offensive threat,” Bell said. “He’s not just a long, interesting lefty who can maybe knock down a 3. Now he has the whole package to be a stretch forward at the next level.”
Right time, right player?
When a power conference program rings up Bell for intelligence, the conversation hinges on an early question.
“Does Michigan State want him?” Bell said. “If they do, they’re not even going to bother.”
Jackson’s reclassification again comes into play. The Spartans and coach Tom Izzo stocked their top-20 class with three players at Jackson’s position — Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., and Thomas Kithier — and bring back Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman. Meanwhile, Izzo and his staff doggedly pursued Weems, which left a welt when he stunningly committed to DePaul last month.
“That was the only time you’ve heard them (MSU) mentioned” with Jackson, “ Bell said. “It was kind of like they were looking for Plan B guys. But it would still be too much of a hard fit. He’s too much like the guys they’re bringing in.”
What about the other school in Ann Arbor? On paper, Jackson’s skillset ticks off boxes that Michigan and coach John Beilein might covet. Instead, you need a lesson in local politics. Since taking over 11 years ago, the Wolverines‘ head man hasn’t made a habit of mining the state’s largest metro area for talent. “When John first got here, he didn’t recruit Michigan at all,” Bell said. ”It just seems like PSL kids have never been a good fit for him.”
Even in the wake of a solid EYBL session in Atlanta, neither of Jackson’s home-state schools have entered the fray for his services. For now, Jackson said he plans on visiting Oklahoma, Xavier and DePaul before June ends and Meanstreets heads back out on the road for the July evaluation period.
During his first 15 months on coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff, success in extracting talent from Michigan has been elusive for Mann.
In the 2019 class, the program has extended offers to Weems, point guard Rocket Watts, and combo guard Harlond Beverly. The Tigers are reportedly in contention for Watts, who is currently playing for the Team USA in the FIBA U18 Americas Championship, and saw Beverly — a one-time sleeper — become a top-75 prospect and priority in East Lansing.
Where MU slots Jackson on its board, though, is unclear. Belleville (Ill.) West combo forward E.J. Liddell remains the priority target in this cycle, and the Tigers are still pursuing Malik Hall — both of whom are taking part in the NBA Top 100 camp this week.
Since the spring arrived, however, both have seen high-profile programs enter the fray. Last week, for example, Liddell took an unofficial visit to Ohio State. Securing a commitment from either isn’t assured.
Wooing a prospect like Jackson, who fits the program’s system and remains under the radar nationally, is a boon at this time of the calendar. On top of that, Mann and McDowell are of the same generation and have moved in the same circles. “He’s really tight with my high school coach,” Jackson said. “They’re friends.”
Finally, Jackson’s shown a willingness to leave his comfort zone, first for Meanstreets and now moving almost 1,000 miles to spend a year further sculpting his game at Sunrise Christian.
On a visit two months ago, the Buffaloes‘ staff outlined a strength-and-conditioning plan that will help Jackson add some mass and strength, which would come in handy finishing at the rim and holding on to contested rebounds. At the same time, Sunrise doesn’t want to hamper Jackson’s lateral agility or quickness, which are essential for a combo forward who can guard four positions and would be forced to defend in swaths of space.
“I don’t want to put on too much weight,” Jackson said. “I just want the weight I do have to be muscle. Once you get me on a good diet and a good (lifting) plan, everything will handle itself.”
“He’s a guy you’re recruiting for three to five years in the future and a possible all-league guy,” Bell said. “He truly does have that potential, and it would get you back into Michigan with someone who’s pretty familiar to people around here.”