Kentucky freshman Jackson opts to stay in draft

Kentucky freshman Jackson opts to stay in draft

12:24 PM ET

  • Jonathan GivonyESPN

Projected lottery pick Isaiah Jackson has elected to hire an agent, forgo his remaining eligibility at Kentucky and keep his name in the 2021 NBA draft, he told ESPN on Friday.

“I feel like I’m ready,” Jackson told ESPN. “All the feedback from teams has been good. People are saying lottery, which is what I wanted. That’s one of the main reasons I’m declaring, so my agent can get involved and speak on my behalf in terms of negotiating and making sure he can get me to the right team.”

Jackson, the No. 11 prospect in the ESPN 100, was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman and All-Defensive teams after averaging 8.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 21 minutes for Kentucky, shooting 55% from the field.

“This is going to be a big burden off my shoulders,” he said. “That’s all anyone wants to know. A lot of Kentucky fans are telling me to stay every day. I just want to be able to do what I want instead of being restricted. I want to do camps and autograph signings to get some money in my pocket. In order to set that up I need to be fully declared.”

The 6-foot-10 Jackson is considered one of the most explosive athletes in the 2021 NBA draft after leading the SEC in blocked shots. His 12.7 shot-block percentage rivaled the output of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel in their time at Kentucky, while he also ranked as one of the best rebounders in this NBA draft class on both ends of the floor.

Jackson also showed impressive progress on the offensive end as the season moved on, being a significant threat as a rim-runner and pick-and-roll finisher thanks to his reliable hands and ability to elevate quickly for dunks. He draws fouls at a strong rate and converted 70% of his attempts from the free throw line this past season, showing potential facing the basket and either beating opponents off the dribble or knocking down jump shots in the midrange area.

“I knew deep down inside that everything was going to come together eventually,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t just a dunker and that I had more in my bag. I was just waiting on the opportunity. Coach [John Calipari] believed in me the whole time, but in the beginning, he didn’t have that trust in me. As the season moved on, he told me what I needed to do to find my identity. He told me to go out and rock.”

Jackson is currently in Southern California working out with several projected draft picks, including Baylor’s Davion Mitchell, Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, North Carolina’s Day’Ron Sharpe, the G League Ignite’s Jalen Green and LSU’s Cameron Thomas.

“In order to thrive in the league, you have to be able to shoot. I think my jumper is starting to improve a lot,” he said. “I think I can be a stretch-4 who can guard multiple positions. We play a lot of pickup here with [trainer] Don MacLean. I’m working on my spacing and pick-and-roll scenarios. It’s helping me develop a lot in terms of shooting, bringing the ball up the court, working on my handle.

“A lot of teams play small ball in the NBA nowadays; I can fit into that real well. I can guard all positions, bring that physicality on defense and spread the floor. Working with Davion Mitchell has been helpful. I’ve been picking his brain a lot and he’s giving me a lot of tips on my pick-and-roll game.”

Considered somewhat of an afterthought as only the fourth-most-heralded prospect in Kentucky’s freshman class, Jackson exceeded expectations and elevated his standing significantly in the eyes of scouts with his combination of physical tools, defensive instincts and upside. He posted eight blocks against then-top-10-ranked Kansas in just his fourth college game in the Champions Classic in December. Jackson says that while he wasn’t considered a surefire one-and-done prospect entering the season, Kentucky’s coaching staff has been highly supportive of him in the pre-draft process.

“Coach Cal hasn’t put any pressure on me to return,” Jackson said. “He basically gave me his blessing. He said he would love to have me back, but whatever decision I make, he’s rocking it. That’s my guy. He knows it’s my dream.

“One thing that he really instilled in my head is to be consistent every game. Last year I would have a good game and then completely disappear the next. Playing tough and being consistent every game. That’s what the NBA is. If you aren’t consistent, you can’t thrive in the league. Playing tough too. He’s big on that.”