Josh Jackson won't go quietly, unless he needs to

Editor's note: The 2016-17 college basketball season will be the "Year of the Freshmen," featuring what could be the best class we've ever seen. Over the next two weeks, we will get familiar with the best of the best, examining who they are and where each of the top 10 prospects in the 2016 ESPN 100 came from.

Read more: No. 10 Duke's Frank Jackson | No. 9 Kentucky's Malik Monk
No. 8 Michigan State's Miles Bridges | No. 7 Washington's Markelle Fultz
No. 6 Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox | No. 5 Kentucky's Bam Adebayo
No. 4 UCLA's Lonzo Ball | No. 3 Duke's Jayson Tatum
No. 2 Kansas' Josh Jackson | No. 1 Duke's Harry Giles

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- A hard foul, the kind that sends previously functional pickup runs into a shouty standoff death spiral. A 5-foot cushion on the perimeter, with overt disrespect masked as pity. Taunts of the printable -- He's soft, let him shoot -- and unprintable variety. An edict delivered as a matter of fact: Freshmen -- all freshman -- are required to carry the upperclassmen's bags.

This is The Test. Or parts of it, anyway. Probably.

It's a tricky, shifty thing, this test -- tough to define in concrete terms. It's not, technically speaking, an exam -- though it also kind of is. There are no guaranteed questions and no sure answers. Even the name is informal. You can be "tested," but you can also be "challenged." You don't necessarily pass the test so much as "react correctly," as Kansas senior Landen Lucas said, with some care. Correct reaction requires fluency in a social language only elite athletes speak.

All Josh Jackson could be sure of when he arrived at the Kansas campus in June was that a test of some kind -- administered by veterans of a top-five team with deadly serious national title ambitions and taken by a hyper-talented freshman with a potential No. 1 NBA draft pick awaiting him 12 months later -- was going to happen.

"I knew it was coming," Jackson said. "Immediately."

Fight back. Don't waver. Don't complain. Get angry but not too angry. Hide weakness at all cost. Forget your recruiting ranking; no one cares. Expect equal treatment. Take everything in stride. Absorb the larger stakes. Buy in.

Above all, understand that the whole point of all of this, at the end of the day, is to see if you can stand out and fit in -- at the same time.


"I think I passed," Jackson said.

IT IS THERE, in that seemingly contradictory dichotomy between blending in and showing out, that the central promise of Jackson's sure-to-be-short tenure at Kansas lies.

In the 13-year Bill Self era -- the past 12 years of which have ended with a regular-season conference title, a rare statistic that can't possibly be over-repeated -- no player this talented has ever joined a team this experienced. Self has had his fair share of elite freshmen, of course; one doesn't win 12 straight Big 12 titles in the one-and-done era without them. Still, the only player with as much or more hype than Jackson upon his arrival at KU was Andrew Wiggins on the 2013-14 team, which started three freshmen (Wiggins, Joel "The Process" Embiid and Wayne Selden) and one sophomore (Perry Ellis), with just two seniors (graduate transfer Tarik Black and reserve Justin Wesley) in the rotation.

This team is different. Or rather, that team was different -- the youthful outlier in Self's otherwise balanced personnel portfolio. For most of Self's tenure, KU's success has been built not merely on talent acquisition but on player development, that gradual, old-fashioned process of incremental, collective improvement. Despite significant year-over-year personnel losses -- Ellis graduated after a sterling, four-year career, and a host of others, including Selden, Cheick Diallo, Jamari Traylor, Brannen Greene and Hunter Mickelson, are gone too -- the 2016-17 edition is still very much that kind of team, led by seniors (Frank Mason III, Lucas) and juniors (Devonte' Graham) at its core.

Where the massively hyped Wiggins (and Embiid) needed to dominate from the outset, Jackson has the luxury of integrating with a group of players who have already pretty much seen it all. That is, fittingly enough, a perfect forum for his game -- itself a combination of star-level athletic prowess and the kinds of contributions that don't make YouTube mixtapes.

"The thing about him is -- and I think this is a good thing -- sometimes you go watch somebody play, and right away after 10 minutes, they're making every shot, and you just go, 'Wow,'" Self said of Jackson. "Josh is a guy that the more you watch him, you go, 'Wow.'

"It's not like it just jumps off the page to me when I watch him. Because he can go through phases of time when he blends in. But then you look at it and say, wait, he just blocked three shots, he just got two offensive rebounds, he just led the break, got us a layup -- he can do a lot, this guy. He can do a little bit of everything."

Save for a minor hitch in his shooting mechanic, per Self, Jackson's game has no glaring holes. He can do all the mixtape things: He is 6-foot-7 and superathletic, he has a ball handler's touch, he is an excellent passer, and he has an innate ability to create angles and make tough shots in traffic. But he might be even better at cutting off the ball and better still as a defender, particularly on the perimeter. Jackson could end up being KU's best perimeter defender, which is no small feat for a guy playing next to Mason and Graham, two of the nation's best.

That is why Self, whose teams have typically featured two traditionally big forwards, is figuring out how to play four guards at any given time. It's a stylistically on-trend move, as the game gets smaller and smaller from the NBA on down, and it's one Jackson -- the "tallest guard" in that four-guard lineup -- seems entirely capable of taking on. If he scores 30, great. But he might score 12 and be every bit as crucial.

"You can't label him as any one thing," Self said. "He's just a basketball player."

HE IS ALSO, it turns out, a totally nice, seemingly normal dude.

Jackson can play the saxophone -- well enough that if he had practiced and hadn't been so nervous, he could have gotten through the solo performance his teammates wanted him to put on at Kansas' "Late Night in the Phog" event in October. ("I was not comfortable playing in front of 16,000 people," he said.) He's into chess, and he started a chess club at Prolific Prep in Napa, California, where he spent his senior year of high school and was a member of the National Honor Society. Ask him to describe himself, and the first thing he will say is that he's "kind of an introvert."

He is also, it turns out, a next-level competitive freak.

This is the second bit of that self-description: "a competitor at everything." Chess gets heated. Checkers gets heated. Connect Four -- Connect Four! -- gets heated. Video games aren't merely a relaxing diversion; they're another avenue in which to compete. (His top choice is "Mortal Kombat XL." His main character? Raiden. "I don't think anyone can beat me," he said.)

Indeed, these are the two things other people say about Jackson: that he is a really nice guy and crazy competitive, and that the difference is never more noticeable than when he steps on and off the court.

"He's very easy to get along with," Lucas said. "I don't think I've ever seen a person, or a personality type, not fit with him."

This is the same person who, earlier this year, blocked a shot from NBA legend Gary Payton's son in a high school game -- and then started talking trash to Gary Payton.

Self picked up on all of this quickly enough. Sometimes, all he has to do is praise a teammate for playing hard and intentionally omit Jackson, and then watch as Jackson mutters at himself under his breath.

As far as Jackson can tell, that innate drive was honed early in childhood, when his mother, Apples Jones, a former player at UTEP, took her son out back for games of one-on-one -- and never, ever let him win.

(Ahem: The similarities to Duke guard Frank Jackson's one-on-one matches against his father are uncanny, and the only conclusion worth drawing is that parents of prodigal hoopsters should start ruthlessly dominating their children at a tender age. It seems to work.)

The mental image of a little kid crying and storming off because his mom beat him at basketball -- again -- is a vivid one, but that can't be how it went down.

"That's pretty much exactly how it went down," Jackson said with a laugh.

Starting at 8 years old, Jackson played his mom, and she wouldn't give an inch, "would not take it easy on me at all." It took all of five years, until Jackson was 13 and had grown a few inches and gotten a bit stronger, for him to get his first win.

"Of course, I started prancing around and dancing and all of that stuff," he said. "She didn't seem mad, though. She had a smile on her face. She was happy."

Lesson learned: Basketball is more fun when it's competitive, when both people know they are getting the other's best.

"And we, after that, we never played again," Jackson said.

NO WONDER JACKSON WAS READY for his test. For some players, even great ones, threading the needle between "uber-competitive jerk" and "over-passive nice guy" is a career-long struggle. For KU's freshman star, it is the baseline sum of his personality.

"Josh is great at it," Lucas said. "Because of the demeanor he brings with him. Speaking for me, personally, I love it when guys, young guys, come back at it. Because I'm competitive too."

"I will tell you this: If anybody in his camp, primarily his mom, thought he would back down because somebody came at him, I mean," Self said before pausing, "that would ... be something that was discussed for a long time. That's not in their DNA."

That doesn't mean there won't be more tests. As comfortable as Jackson is with the attention he is receiving -- and as much as he was introduced to it as early as eighth grade, when the recruiting rankings started rolling in -- there's something different about feeling it on a nightly basis or after a tough loss or when the shots don't fall for a week or a month or all season. The lights can get bright.

Those summer tests, preemptively designed to ward off trouble later in the season, can't always account for the frustrations that can accrue in the cold winter Big 12 play -- or the pressures associated with KU's attempt to tie the longest conference-title streak of all time, currently held by UCLA.

In the meantime, though, Jackson has, to use Self's phrase, "unpacked his bags." He has integrated himself fully in the team, on the court and off. He has done everything he can to earn the respect of the veteran teammates whose goals he will play such a large role in achieving and who hate to lose every bit as much as he does. The goal: Fit in and stand out.

Rest assured of one thing: Even if you don't see Jackson, you'll hear him.

"Oh, definitely, [I talk back]," Jackson said. "That's part of passing the test."