Every year, some two dozen high school ballers are invited to the McDonald's All-American Game, now hosted in Chicago for its sixth straight season. Every year, they fight to distinguish themselves amidst the churn of talent, the ceaseless flow of long, fast, highly coordinated men. "I've seen him before," a veteran NBA scout tells me about a player he has never, in fact, seen play before. "Twenty years ago I saw him, I say, and people ask me how. 'This guy's eighteen,' they say. 'How have you seen him?' But I tell them, I saw him twenty years ago. He had a different name and a different face back then, but I saw him."
The universe has seen fit to give us only one Steph Curry, which already feels like a lot. But the reason that Steph Curry and LeBron James and other generational NBA talents catch so much of our attention is because they invent new positions in the game, new roles and new places. Everyone else is, in some fundamental way, a type—a guy that a scout has already seen come through things like the McDonald's All-American Game. There are scouts galore in Chicago to inspect this particular stretch of the assembly line; all thirty professional teams have representation at the event, and none of those evaluators are easy to impress, let alone surprise. But it still happens.
One player who has stood out is 6'9'' forward Josh Jackson, a senior at Prolific Prep in Northern California. Jackson transferred to Prolific Prep, a unique and strange basketball academy that's not quite a school, from his hometown of Detroit after his sophomore season—there were, and are, many millions of sporting dollars in his future, and it was the savvy business decision.
The heightened media action around Jackson during the McDonald's festivities is a matter of both basketball ability and mythos. Jackson is thrilling to watch, a tantalizing wing who moves and dunks like nobody's ever told him no. His undecided status (he's still choosing between Michigan State, Kansas, and Arizona for next season) also makes him intriguing, as does a highly clickable news headline from back in January. It was then that Jackson trash-talked with one of basketball's all-time trash talkers, Gary Payton, while playing against his son Julian in Napa.
"I respect him because he has a lot of dog in him to come back and talk," the elder Payton said afterward. "He has a lot of gall to do that, so that's good." When asked about the Payton incident in Chicago, Jackson laughs and is visibly delighted. A flat "no" is his answer as to whether any of his AAU friends and McDonald's teammates can compete with him as an on-court slanderer. "I'm definitely No. 1 at that," Jackson says, and goes on to agree that bringing his talk to the college game is another important step in his career's evolution. "It's really just competitive, though." There's a switch that clearly flips in Jackson's personality when he takes to the game, because he is mild-mannered and affable in real life, choosing his words politely and judiciously. "I really just want to be able to text all my friends about how I beat them later on."
At Prolific, and in McDonald's scrimmages, Jackson usually earns that privilege. He is kinetic and omnipresent and dominant; it just doesn't look feasible for anyone to escape his speed and reach as a defender, especially not in the open court, where Jackson is at his best and most watchable. He is comfortable and supremely confident even against nationally ranked talent, and does not have to change his game against even his all-star peers. When Jackson gets the ball in the post during half-court drills, he picks his moves and scores with the blithe freedom of choice most of humanity only experiences when we're shopping for groceries while stoned.
Jackson's athleticism is so overwhelming that he probably won't have to make many adjustments until he turns pro. While the NBA scout discussed the strategic calculus that high school athletes must bring to their college decisions—making sure they get proper playing time and exposure, in a system that will show them to advantage—he noted that none of those rules apply to Jackson. "Some of these guys have already proven they have more talent than the rest," the scout said. "He'll play all the time no matter where he goes."
In the NBA, where Jackson will almost certainly be in a year and a three months, the young star's top project will be to develop a consistent jumper, the absence of which is the most glaring gap in his game at the moment. As holes go, it's a decent one to have—shooting is widely believed to be the most teachable skill, and an increasingly important one in Curry's mortar-friendly NBA.
There's a good chance, however, that Jackson will be that rare outlying talent that doesn't need a shot to have a huge impact on the modern game, as Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon was believed to be when he was drafted despite lacking deep shooting touch in 2014. Gordon has captured the league's imagination with his increasingly pyrotechnic leaping in this, his second season, and has become an NBA darling despite shooting just 30 percent from deep.
This is something that fellow long-range clanker Russell Westbrook knows about, too. Some athletes exert more influence over gravity than others, and use that power to fuck up minds. Jackson's game will surely evolve, but even if it continues to omit a reliable jumper, he looks destined for that particular category of men. There will be an apprenticeship, but that's the business. You can see players like Josh Jackson in the McDonald's game every year—joyful, brilliant, unfinished—but that's no knock on him. After all, we haven't yet seen who and what he will be.