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Photo courtesy Slam Dunk To The Beach

I’ll be wishing good things for UConn’s Andre Jackson in tonight’s NBA draft. After all, I discovered him. 

My discovery came in late 2018 as Gonzaga College High School from D.C. was playing Albany Academy, a school from Upstate New York, in Slam Dunk to the Beach, an annual prep basketball tournament I attended in Lewes, Del. Jackson pinned a Gonzaga shot against the backboard, kept the ball, turned upcourt and went coast to coast for a violent tomahawk dunk. It was as athletic and thrilling a sequence as I’d ever seen in high school hoops, and I’d seen lots of high school hoops. Jackson, who was just a junior at the time, dropped my jaw again later in the tournament when he slammed his head on the backboard while blocking another shot.

I later learned that Jackson was already a known quantity among schoolboy hoops obsessives, but I’d never heard of him or his school before. I left the gym sure I’d been in the presence of a higher basketball power, and for weeks babbled breathlessly to strangers about the glories mine eyes had seen from this kid from Albany who was going to take over the world. I began following Jackson and felt invested in his successes through his college career, so I thought it was cool when he got invited to play in New York’s prestigious Dyckman Park summer league after his junior season at Albany Academy, and experienced something akin to parental pride when he captained this year’s UConn squad to an NCAA championship.

But my predictions of Jackson's greatestness haven't yet been realized. Almost all the NBA draft gurus have the 6-foot-6 forward sticking around until the second round; nobody in Sports Illustrated’s pre-draft roundup predicted Jackson would be among the top 14 picks. The experts tend to give more weight to things like “statistics” (he averaged a mere 6.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game at UConn, while shooting just 28 percent on three-pointers as a senior) than they do the sort of showstopping dunks and shot blocks that informed my scouting report back when he was an 11th-grader. Guys on their way to taking over the world aren’t still on the board in the second round.

Among the negative critiques of Jackson’s game from draft knowitalls:  

“He’s not much of a shooter at this point and has sort of a funky release.” - NBADraftRoom.com

“Even outside of the jump shot, his offensive game needs work overall.” - Sports Illustrated 

“Jackson likely projects as a depth, bench piece.” - NBA.com 

Those words hurt. I want all the naysayers to be wrong about Jackson. I want to be right. 

I’ve watched more high school sports than professional sports over the last few decades, and correctly predicting future stars is a very satisfying part of the exercise. Very occasionally, spotting transcendent talent in teen athletes seems easy: Only weeks before falling hard for Jackson’s high-flying act on a basketball court, I’d watched Caleb Williams on the gridiron for the first time as the then-10th grader, and the future USC quarterback, threw a 70-yard Hail Mary on the last play of the game to give his Gonzaga high school football team the championship of the powerhouse D.C. Catholic league. I get chills just from the memory of that play and the ecstatic mayhem Williams’s brilliance inspired; a section of the grandstands in the Catholic University stadium collapsed during the field-storming. Yeah, Williams as a high school sophomore was the surest thing I’d ever seen. I felt fatherly feelings when Williams was awarded the 2022 Heisman Trophy, and I felt right. (I’m now all for the Washington Commanders tanking the 2023 season—“Fail for Cale!” could be the battle cry—to better the odds of landing Williams for the home team in the next NFL draft.) 

And with D.C. basketball, it’s the opposite of a struggle to favor prep over pro games. Along with being the home of the Washington Wizards, the market has long boasted the greatest concentration of schoolboy hoops talent on the planet. The glut of greatness is such that I’ve seen lots of local high school guys whose stars shined far brighter after they left town for college. Luka Garza, for example, wasn’t recognized as the best player in the city while playing for Maret School, but went on to be named the best player in the whole country at the University of Iowa in 2021. And Markelle Fultz wasn’t even tabbed as player of the year in his own conference, the D.C. Catholic league, during his senior season at DeMatha Catholic in 2016. But Fultz was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft just one year later. (We’ll ignore how things have mostly gone for Fultz since.)

I also got to watch Jordan Hawkins during his two years at DeMatha, before he became Jackson’s UConn teammate. In high school, Hawkins routinely shared the court with players with bigger reputations. 

I attended a game between DeMatha and Paul VI Catholic in January 2020, for example, that had Hunter Dickinson (later at Michigan and Kansas) and Earl Timberlake (Miami, Memphis, Bryant) playing alongside Hawkins for DeMatha, while Trevor Keels (Duke, New York Knicks), Jeremy Roach (Duke) and Dug McDaniel (Michigan) suited up for Paul VI. That’s one game.

Hawkins has since leapt over all the other schoolboy stars from that game, and Jackson, in the eyes of NBA oracles. Hawkins is now projected to be among the top picks in this year’s draft. 

I’ll be happy for Hawkins if that turns out to be true, just like I’m happy for all the guys I got to see play high school ball over the years who took their games to the next level or levels. And I’ll be sad if those who’ve pooh-poohed Jackson’s value to NBA teams are proven right tonight. I’ll be sad if I was wrong. But we’ll always have Delaware. Man, that dunk was something.

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