OAKLAND — At only 22 years old, second-year Phoenix Suns player Josh Jackson has already accrued a laundry list of accolades in his basketball career.
The 6-foot-8 wing has gone from ranking as ESPN’s No. 2 prep prospect in the nation in 2016, to winning Big 12 Freshman of the Year at University of Kansas in 2017, to being drafted No. 4 overall and earning NBA All-Rookie Second-Team honors in 2018.
Despite all of his honors, many are unaware of Jackson’s most interesting achievement to date: starting his own prep program, with the help of his mother and a few hard-working basketball multi-taskers.
Prolific Prep is born
It all started in the summer of 2013 when Jackson’s mom, Shenita “Apples” Jones, brought her son to Dixon for a one-week AAU training session with Philippe Doherty and Jeremy Russotti.
Jackson had just finished his sophomore year at Detroit’s Consortium College Prep School, where he dominated while averaging 28 points, 15 rebounds and six assists per game en route to a state championship. After terrorizing foes in the Detroit prep system, the emerging baller was in search of a new challenge.
“Coming from Detroit, I felt like I needed a little bit of a change,” said Jackson. “My sophomore year in Detroit I was the number one player in the state and was pretty much averaging almost 30 and 15 – something crazy like that.
“I just looked at it and thought, ‘The competition level is getting a little bit too easy.’”
After just a few days of practice under Doherty and Russotti, Jones felt Jackson had met his basketball match. She began creating a program from scratch, centered around her son with Doherty and Russotti as its leaders.
“I didn’t even realize that in those seven days we were working her son out, she had gone with (Napa Valley youth coach) David Goodrich and visited Justin-Siena and did all these things,” Doherty said. “She formed a plan in like three or four days and then it was up to us to execute it.”
With this bold act, Napa Valley’s own Prolific Prep Academy was born.
According to “History of PP” at prolificprep.org, Jones told Russotti and Doherty, “In August of 2014, when Josh comes back from the world championships with Team USA, I am dropping him off with the both of you and I would like for you to educate him and take care of him his last two years of high school.”
“There were a lot of things that went into it,” Jackson said. “Jeremy and Phil, I just felt like they had a lot of good pro training. They trained a lot of pros at the time, guys that I had talked to. After going through a couple of their workouts, I just felt like it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Building a national power
While Doherty and Russotti were pleasantly shocked to hear that they had suddenly been entrusted with the young star’s development, their mix of excitement and astonishment quickly gave way to a sense of urgency about just how many tasks were needed to be taken care of to start a program from scratch.
“Step 1 was definitely solidifying the school situation,” Russotti said. “Then we had to figure out the boarding situation, secure funding for travel, and figure out who we were even going to play. We aren’t allowed to play California teams, so the question was, ‘Who are we going to play?’ ”
But, with a high-profile star of Jackson’s ilk in tow, Doherty and Russotti quickly realized they were in a unique position to create a Euro-style basketball academy with a national schedule.
“We got a phone call from Dan Hudson, who runs two or three major (prep basketball) events,” Doherty explained. “He called and said, ‘Hey, I heard Josh is going to play for you. We’d love to have you in two or three events.’ Then my phone just started ringing and ringing and ringing. We found a way to put a team together that first year and it was a lot of work. We did academics and visas and everything in between. It wasn’t easy.
“We were co-coaches. We were the academic directors, the travel directors, the school liaison, the host family liaison. There was two of us doing the work of 15 or 20.”
Then in January of the program’s inaugural season, current Prolific Prep head coach Billy McKnight began sitting in on practices after a professional coaching stint in China. A month later, he accepted a coaching position that would allow Doherty and Russotti to concentrate on building up the program from an operational standpoint.
“I had just gotten back from China and I had a deal to go back and coach for the Chinese national team,” said McKnight. “When I got back, it was the end of Prolific Prep’s first year here. So, I actually kind of helped with the program for about a month.
“Even though I had a deal to go back to China with their national team, I told Jeremy and Phil, ‘Hey look, I’d be interested in doing this if you’re looking for a head coach.’ They called me back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And a lot of that was because of Josh.”
While Jackson continued to enjoy a bevy of basketball success upon his arrival to the Napa Valley, it was the new friends, new experiences and new community he was immersed in that influenced him as much as anything on the court.
“When I got out there, I loved it,” Jackson beamed. “Being in the city of Napa, it was definitely a change from Detroit, but it was something that I got adjusted to quickly. The city accepted me and taught me a lot of things. I’ve still got a lot of friends and people who I now consider to be family who even still come to my games.
“I’ve even got people here tonight (Sunday at Oracle Arena). So, just the whole move makes me feel great.”
Playing for the Suns
Nowadays, Jackson comes off the bench for the Phoenix Suns, a young team at the bottom of the Western Conference with a bevy of talented prospects fighting to carve out an NBA role.
Jackson is one of those role players now, simply finding his place after growing up as the centerpiece of every team he’d been on.
“The difference is, you take everybody from high school, you take all the best and you put them here. This is the best of the best,” Jackson said of the NBA. “It’s really hard to be one of those top guys in this league when you’ve got so many people who were the best where they came from.”
“Whatever role you get to play here, whatever you get, you have to take advantage of it. You can’t squander it and you can’t take it for granted. While I’m here, I’m just trying to get better, help my team get better, win games, and just come out and improve every game.”
He had lived a stable basketball life through his time with Consortium, Prolific Prep and Kansas. But Jackson quickly experienced some adversity early in his NBA career when he went from being mentioned in Kyrie Irving trade rumors to seeing his head coach, Earl Watson, fired after just three games.
“It was definitely a change, but this is the NBA,” Jackson said. “It’s a business and that happens. I just looked at it as, ‘Hey, another team wants me enough to be mentioned in a trade.’ To be mentioned in a trade with a guy who is that good, I felt good about myself. I knew there was nothing that I could really do about it as far as me being traded or not traded.
“I just have to come out and keep playing my game and just show everybody the type of player that I am. If I had have been traded, I would be playing in Cleveland and I would be doing the same thing.”
Jackson has now had three head coaches in less than two seasons in the NBA, and has seen his role fluctuate as coaches shuffle the deck to figure out which youthful lineups are the most fruitful. To boot, his team sits at a lowly 16-52 after finishing 21-61 in his rookie season. After rarely losing throughout his pre-NBA career, the ultra-competitive wing isn’t satisfied with losing.
But the Suns have shown glimpses of life against elite competition lately, beating the Eastern Conference’s No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks 114-105 on March 4, before defeating the Golden State Warriors, 115-111, on Sunday night.
Considers Green a role model
As he put up seven points, eight rebounds and three assists in the Suns’ 16-point comeback win against the back-to-back champions, Jackson helped his young team secure their first win against the Warriors in their past 15 tries. It also doubled as his first-ever win over his favorite NBA sensei, Draymond Green.
“My best mentor definitely was Draymond Green coming out of high school,” Jackson laughed, looking across the court to see if he could spot the fellow Michigander. “Both of us came from Michigan and I had a chance to talk to him a couple times when I was in high school going through my recruitment process.
“He was a big influence on me. So, being able to play against him, even tonight, we always have fun and we talk trash in the game sometimes.”
Yet, just as Green and others stars such as Paul George and James Harden have gone out of their way to mentor Jackson, the young pro has already begun to assemble his own mentees. He mentioned Prolific Prep’s Nimari Burnett and Spire Academy’s LaMelo Ball and Rocket Watts Jr. as young players he keeps in touch with, and said it makes him feel good to have a positive effect on upcoming players through his trailblazing high school story.
“It makes me feel great. I did something special,” he smiled. “I started something that hundreds of other kids are going to come through and hopefully have the opportunity to do the same things I did.”
With Russotti, Doherty and McKnight all referring to him as the “backbone” of the program, it is obvious that Jackson has established a legacy forever tied to his basketball career that transcends his on-court performance.
Still, Jackson is only 22, and potentially has at least 10 years to continue racking up accolades and improving on his game.
Just how much can he improve?
“I feel like it’s limitless,” he said. “Who knows? I could be anything I set my mind to. Hopefully I can be an all-star in this league. I really think I’ve got the opportunity to be one. I’m going to keep working. I know there’s a lot of things I’ve got to work on to get where I want to be.”