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Josh Jackson’s journey from the NBA to the G League: ‘Don’t feel bad for me’

The former lottery pick is working on improving himself on and off the court

LAS VEGAS – Josh Jackson is not living the NBA life right now.

The fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft is in the G-League riding charter buses and commercial planes, staying in three-star hotels in Sioux Falls and Erie, and playing home games in Southaven, Mississippi, while awaiting a call-up from the Memphis Grizzlies.

But Jackson is taking a positive approach to his stint with the Memphis Hustle.

“The last time I had fun like this was maybe AAU,” Jackson told The Undefeated during the G-League Showcase. “Don’t feel bad for me. It’s an opportunity. I am just thankful I get to play basketball.”

The Phoenix Suns traded Jackson to the Grizzlies after he struggled on and off the court during his two years with the franchise. But instead of bringing Jackson to training camp with a shot at their playing rotation, the Grizzlies sent him straight to their G-League affiliate, where he is still making his NBA salary of $7 million as an assigned player. (The average G-League full-time player makes $35,000.)

The 6-foot-8 swingman is averaging 20.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.6 made 3-pointers through 18 games for the Hustle, who own a 16-4 record.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you still playing down here? Why haven’t they called you up?’ ” Jackson said.

“I’m pretty confident that at some point I will get the call-up and be playing at the next level once again. So, for right now I got to stay focused and keep getting better for that moment.”

Jackson was once a heralded NBA rookie with size, athleticism and versatility. The Suns drafted Jackson over De’Aaron Fox and Donovan Mitchell, and viewed him as a building block alongside sharpshooter Devin Booker. He earned All-Rookie Second Team honors after averaging 18.7 points following the All-Star break in 2018. But Jackson didn’t show progress during his second season, averaging 11.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He also led the team with 15 technical fouls.

“I felt like I was a little bit out of control,” Jackson said. “I had a lot of crazy turnovers and shots because I was rushing and going fast. I was eager to make things happen. We were losing a lot of games and I was channeling my energy the wrong way. It should have been into bettering my game and making my team better.”

The rotating door of coaches and teammates during his two years in Phoenix didn’t help matters. Jackson was coached by Earl Watson, Jay Triano and Igor Kokoskov, before Monty Williams was hired on May 3. Prior to last season, the Suns also fired general manager Ryan McDonough, who drafted Jackson. James Jones was later promoted to general manager on April 11.

Jackson acknowledged that he was affected by the constant change in Phoenix.

“It definitely matters, especially for a young player. That’s all you really know when you are coming in,” Jackson said. “That is your first experience in the NBA and it’s tough. If you include Monty, it would have been four coaches. Every coach is pretty much different. I was learning new terminology (with each). I was seeing new players pretty much every week from the G-League, trades and guys getting waived. It was a lot of change and hard to get adjusted to.”

There were also issues off the court.

Jackson was arrested on May 10 for escape and resisting arrest at the Rolling Loud music festival in Miami Gardens. The next month, Jackson was accused of using marijuana around his infant daughter, according to the Arizona Republic.

Looking back, Jackson said he would have done “a bunch of things” differently.

“I will never make the same mistake twice whether on the court or off the court, especially playing,” Jackson said.

The Suns traded Jackson to the Grizzlies in July with guard De’Anthony Melton and two second-round picks in exchange for guards Jevon Carter and Kyle Korver, whose expiring contract of $3.4 million was waived. The move helped Phoenix clear salary cap space to sign free agent point guard Ricky Rubio. Jackson said Jones called him with the news while he was waiting for a flight from Phoenix to his hometown of Detroit.

“I wasn’t emotional about it at all,” Jackson said. “I had seen guys come and go every week. So, it was no surprise to me. I think the only guy still there from my rookie year is ‘Book (Booker).’”

Phoenix Suns guard Josh Jackson (front) is photo bombed by guard Devin Booker during Phoenix Suns media day.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies announced on Sept. 27 that the team and Jackson’s representatives “mutually agreed to allow the forward to restore his reputation on and off the court through an undisclosed set of guidelines.” That included him starting the season in the G-League.

“I’m learning a lot down here,” Jackson said of his G-League assignment. “I’m gaining confidence. I am working on things that I couldn’t do before. That was like one of the main things that me and the organization talked about in making this decision, was for me to work on a lot of other things.”

Hustle head coach Jason March said Jackson arrived with a great attitude. March added that the 22-year-old has gained more confidence in his 3-point shooting and has improved at finishing at the rim.

“We’ve put a lot of resources into it, and he’s put a lot of heart into it,” March said. “He’s trying to do what we are asking. And we are asking a lot of him and really pushing.”

Jackson had a minor setback when he was suspended on Dec. 9 due to a violation of team rules. (The Athletic reported that it was for missing a team meeting.) But he said the suspension is behind him.

“It’s been a learning experience. That’s what life is,” Jackson said. “Good or bad, you take both and you learn from it. That’s all I have really been doing. I try not to focus too much on the bad because that can really mess you up mentally and discourage you. I’ve been in a really good place. I have been just focusing on getting better at my game, becoming more of a professional and getting a routine.”

Jackson is not sure when he will be promoted, but said he will have a “deeper appreciation” if and when it happens.

“I know I am good enough to be playing up there,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t do anything to my confidence or mentality. … When it happens, it will happen. I am not really in a rush to be there. I know I am good enough to be there and I can help the team out.”

While Jackson has yet to play for the Grizzlies, he said he has spent time with several of their players, including Jaren Jackson, Jae Crowder, Dillon Brooks and rookie Ja Morant, who has tweeted out support of Josh Jackson’s G-League play.

Jackson added that Crowder has been mentoring him this season.

“Jae has been really helpful to me just being that veteran mentor guy,” Jackson said. “A guy who has been around the league. Been on winning teams. Been on losing teams. Just knows how the league goes. He also offers me advice through tough situations when I am a little bit stressed or not feeling too good about a situation. The best advice he gave me is to think about my family in everything I am doing.”

Memphis declined Jackson’s fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer. One NBA team executive told The Undefeated that as long as Jackson stays out of trouble and shows he can hit the 3-pointer, he will be signed.

But Jackson acknowledged he is nervous about free agency.

“I have been thinking about it a lot, as anybody would,” Jackson said. “Me and the Grizzlies are in a good place right now. But nothing is guaranteed. So, all I could do is not try to see the finish line too early. Just keep going. … Keep working on my game.

“When the summer comes, I am sure there will be opportunities for me. That is all I can really ask for.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.