Former North Carolina wing Justin Jackson is exhausting himself.
The 22-year-old has visited 10 teams already while preparing for June 22’s NBA Draft. He’s traveled to work out for the franchise that picks as high as No. 5, Sacramento, and the one as low as No. 18, Indiana. He’s been to Miami and Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, among other cities. He stands out as one of the smartest players in this year’s draft. It’s obvious from his game or his words.
He’s a preparation addict.
“I always say, I try to prepare myself so that whenever I get into certain situations, I’ve already done that a thousand times before,” Jackson told The Transcript.
Jackson grew up a Spurs fan because he “loves the way they played,” and it shows in his style with the way he moves off the ball or communicates on defense. He’s a do-it-all wing. He’s got size, length and work ethic. He revamped his shot after building up his lower body with North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian, jumping up to 37 percent from 3 this past junior season while more than doubling his volume. He sank just 29 percent from deep as a sophomore.
But even with Oklahoma City on the prowl for wings, especially ones who can knock down triples, Jackson hasn’t headed to the Thunder for an individual workout. Instead, he’s stayed around the earlier pickers, New Yorks and Charlottes of the NBA.
Experts project Jackson to hear his name called no later than in the late teens come Thursday night, which makes sense considering the organizations he’s met with in person. He’ll be watching the draft up close as one of the few lucky invitees the NBA welcomes to the green room in Barclays Center. And he's not the only wing who could fall just outside of the Thunder’s range.
Former Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby is another who could get scooped up before the Thunder are slated to select at No. 21, though he has a different type of story than Jackson does.
Scouts gush about Anunoby’s athleticism or body type or natural ability, but he’s two years younger than Jackson and doesn’t boast a game as refined, especially as a shooter. Yet, he remains one of the draft’s most intriguing prospects after an ACL injury ended his 2016-17 season.
Doctors don’t expect Anunoby to be ready for the start of the upcoming year. If the injury didn’t exist, who knows where the former Hoosier could have gone? Would he have been a top-10 pick? It’s possible — if not likely. Higher? Maybe.
But now, DraftExpress has the Thunder picking him at No. 21. Yet, even though he and Jackson have led diverging journeys, there is something the two have in common: Anunoby hasn’t met with the Thunder, either. And he doesn’t plan on doing it before Thursday.
It’s all part of a common ploy. Anunoby’s team wants to push him into the teens at the latest. And if Anunoby meets only with teams in that range, there’s a better chance someone early will jump on him, especially given his tremendous potential.
If such a strategy works, if someone picks Anunoby before the Thunder have a chance to select, if Jackson falls off the board before then, too, OKC has a predicament. There aren’t many wings hovering around the Thunder's range, and OKC needs help at the 3 desperately. SMU’s Semi Ojeleye is a possible option, but many are skeptical about his ability to guard perimeter players at a higher level. He played mostly power forward in college.
So, the Thunder, who could also use a backup point guard, get stuck in a grouping with a load of bigs, like Duke’s Harry Giles, Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, Creighton’s Justin Patton, UNC’s Tony Bradley, UCLA’s T.J. Leaf and more. It’s a reason why they’ve worked out so many big men — like Bradley and Patton, as a source told The Transcript — even though the roster is already overloaded with power forwards and centers.
So, if the Thunder get stuck in this spot, do they trade out of the first round altogether? Do they “reach” for someone like Duke’s Frank Jackson or Colorado’s Derrick White, two players who are supposed to go later?
The Thunder have never had a problem pushing against anticipated convention come draft time. And given the possible situation they could find themselves in this year, a surprise, whether one that comes because they trade down or trade up or stretch for someone who was supposed to go five or seven picks later, may not be all that surprising.