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The one area where KU freshman Elmarko Jackson is turning a corner

Playing time has led to progress and his teammates have noticed

3 min read
Kansas freshman Elmarko Jackson (13) surveys the court during a recent KU home game at Allen Fieldhouse. [Chance Parker photo]

There’s been plenty of dissection of Kansas freshman Elmarko Jackson’s performance and place in the Jayhawks’ starting lineup so far this season.

And while that has led to the discovery of high points and low points, good moments and bad, there’s one area that Jackson’s teammates believe he’s starting to excel.


“I think defensively he’s starting to realize that that’s where he can lay his hat on,” KU big man Hunter Dickinson said on Thursday while previewing the Jayhawks’ upcoming clash with Wichita State at 3 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dickinson said Jackson’s confidence and comfort level on that end of the floor started to show up much more consistently in recent outings, and KU coach Bill Self agreed.

“I do think he’s gotten better defensively,” Self said Thursday.

Both Dickinson and Self pointed to the conceptual side of defense as the areas where Jackson’s growth has shown up the most. And if you watch him, you see a guy who is acting much more on instinct and out of attack mode rather than a player who is waiting to react to what the man he is guarding does.

Self said that really showed up in KU’s tough road win at Indiana and noted that it wasn’t quite as good in last week’s home win over Yale.

Still, progress is being made and the belief that there’s more where that came from seems to be pretty widespread throughout the roster.

“He’s gonna continue to get better,” Self said of Jackson. “Nick (Timberlake) will too and Johnny (Furphy) will, as well. The first semester is, I guess, officially over; it’s time for those guys to start delivering at a different level than what we were earlier and, certainly, Elmarko should be the head of that threesome doing that.”

By mere minutes, that makes sense. And that also has helped accelerate Jackson’s progress.

As a full-time starter, the freshman guard has played 277 minutes in No. 2 KU’s first 12 games, which is nearly as many as the next three guards behind him have played combined.

Furphy, Timberlake and freshman Jamari McDowell have combined for 393 minutes in the Jayhawks’ first 12 games.

While playing time is one thing, it’s what it leads to that’s the most important factor here — opportunity. Jackson has played far more meaningful minutes than those other Jayhawks who fill the role, and, therefore, has had an increased number of chances to gain experience.

That, Dickinson said, is what has stood out most about Jackson’s improved defensive play of late.

“Defensive positioning, I think, was big for him,” Dickinson said. “Him learning the game and the pace of the game and really getting comfortable with that has really helped him.”

Dickinson provided two specific examples.

One was the challenge of switching through screens. The other was the art of staying connected to the man you’re guarding rather than trailing him, chasing him or being late to close out on a shooter.

“In college, teams will really make you pay (for that),” Dickinson said. “The high school game and college game is so different defensively.”

Added Self: “I think concepts and probably how we want to guard (have been his biggest area of improvement). Simple things like how to guard a ball screen, who’s tagging the guy and things like that.”

While some of that is feel most of it is reps, familiarity, confidence and comfort. And the deeper the season goes, the more Jackson should improve in all areas of defense.

One of the biggest jumps he’s made of late, however, has to do with competitiveness. While Self joined Dickinson in praising Jackson’s understanding and comfort on the defensive end, he said sometimes it still just comes down to playing hard.

“Whenever you labor at some of those (fundamental) things, if you just play ‘sick ’em,’ that can cover up for a lot of mistakes,” Self said.

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