November 7, 2023 

2024 WNBA Draft film room: Rickea Jackson edition

Why Rickea Jackson just had the most important game of any 2024 WNBA draft prospect

One of the hardest things to try to scout is the ability to just get buckets. It is the hit tool of basketball, the quality that matters above all else while simultaneously being the skill that translates the most inconsistently from college to the pros.

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It is one thing to try to project how well a dominant scorer in college will be able to get buckets in the W. When a prospect is scoring at ease against top competition, it means they’re at least a great athlete. And there are traits that we know are crucial for that prospect to be able to become a valuable WNBA scorer — they need counters to their go-to moves,1 they need to square their shoulders to the basket on their jumpers without moving forward or to the side unintentionally,2 they need to react and adjust quickly to defensive rotations.3 When a great collegiate scorer does all those things, it makes it easy to say they’ll be at least a decent scorer in the pros, too. The lottery selections this coming April are certain to reinforce how important this is.

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But the key part of that exercise is the initial assumption: that they’re “scoring at ease.” What happens when a player is an elite scorer, but their production comes from consistently tough looks? What does it mean that a prospect is among the very best of their peers at putting the ball in the hoop, but does not create consistently good looks on their own?

Rickea Jackson’s profile is as tough to evaluate as any we’ve seen in the past five years. And it’s why her performance against Team USA On Nov. 5 could be the most important game this season by any prospect in the 2024 class. She scored a game-high 15 points on 53.6% true-shooting while playing about as many minutes as Sabrina Ionescu, Kahleah Copper, Brittney Griner and Betnijah Laney. It was efficient, it was eye-catching and it most importantly demonstrated that her tough-shotmaking may not suffer much from a drastic increase in the athleticism and skill of the defenders she’s facing.

To set the stakes: the importance of shot-creation is shown every single draft. Maddy Siegrist was drafted third last year almost entirely on her ability to get buckets. The tool that NaLyssa Smith rode to a No. 2 selection the year prior was her shot-creation. In 2019, AD (No. 2) and Arike Ogunbowale (No. 5) were both drafted over the likes of Napheesa Collier (No. 6) and Ezi Magbegor (No. 12) purely because they had been elite at getting buckets.

But the volatility of this skill is just as clear: Smith is a quality WNBA player who is still getting better, but Shakira Austin, drafted right behind her, is already on a Hall of Fame track; a 2019 do-over would likely have Collier going first and Magbegor in the lottery. Five of the last six drafts and eight of the last 12 have seen lottery teams make suboptimal decisions almost entirely because they drafted someone that they thought would get buckets instead of an obviously-more-skilled prospect.4 Had the Sun not made this mistake in 2016, they would have been able to have had Jonquel Jones without trading away Chelsea Gray and the pick that became Allisha Gray.

That’s not to say that some of the players who would move down in draft do-overs haven’t actually become good scorers. Smith is among the best players in the league at turning defensive rotations into consistent points, Ogunbowale might have the most mind-boggling highlight reel of any player in league history and Rachel Banham (who Connecticut took over Jones in 2016) has been a great shooter in recent years. But the fact that they are merely “good” scorers and not efficient shot-creators (though Smith could very well get there) has meant that they have never truly moved the needle for their teams.

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That brings us back to Jackson. Because Jackson turning out to be a merely good scorer but not an efficient shot-creator is one thing, but her doing so while not being able to lean on the kind of space-creation that Smith and Ogunbowale possess means something very different. The fact that the bulk of Jackson’s self-created scoring comes from contested looks means that a lot is riding on the ability to confidently project that she isn’t subject to as much volatility as the average bucket-getter.

Last year raised some concern about that. Kellie Harper made some adjustments in the middle of the season, one of which was to greatly simplify Jackson’s role, asking her to do more play-finishing and less face-up shot-creation. The result was more consistent standout production, but it raised some concerns over whether the scoring versatility that we had considered a major strength for Jackson was as viable as we thought it’d be. All of which made invaluable the opportunity to see her going against some of the best wing defenders in the world.

Jackson started off quietly, her only notable play in the first quarter an offensive rebound and crafty putback over Copper:

Then came the second quarter, in which Jackson dropped buckets on Allisha Gray, Rhyne Howard and Copper, while navigating drop coverage from Aliyah Boston and Griner. She was able to create about as much space as she usually does — not all that much — but it didn’t matter one bit:

Jackson scored nine points in the second quarter on 4-for-5 shooting.

And there were less flashy moments that still demonstrated how strongly Jackson’s skill set might translate to the league. She deterred Howard and Copper from driving against her with quick footwork at the point of attack. She navigated space well defensively as a help defender, showing heady KYP (“know[ing] your personnel,” i.e. adjusting your approach based on the matchup) to balance providing help and sticking close to her assignment, outside of a couple times where she left the extremely undersized Karoline Striplin alone in the post against Griner.

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Most importantly, Jackson showed comfort and poise. Where fellow 2024 WNBA draft prospect Jewel Spear was clearly jittery having to defend Diana Taurasi, Jackson stayed within the flow of the game regardless of whether things were going her way. One of the things I’ve learned from the 2023 draft is that comfort and poise are factors that we’d undervalued,5 and if past is prologue, Jackson’s serious strength in those categories and performance on Sunday gives me a lot more confidence in her today than I had just last week.

  1. Notable prospects who did not have good counter moves: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Amanda Zahui B., Rachel Banham, Lauren Cox, Charli Collier
  2. Notable prospects who could not stabilize their shoulders on pull-up jumpers: Kelly Miller, Candice Wiggins, Alexis Hornbuckle, Tiffany Mitchell, Gabby Williams
  3. Notable prospects who were slow adjusting to rotations, at least relative to other top prospects: Chamique Holdsclaw to some extent, Monique Currie, Candice Wiggins, Arike Ogunbowale
  4. To show my work, the “more skilled but not drafted” players in question: 2023, Jordan Horston; 2022, Austin; 2021, Dana Evans; 2019, Collier and Magbegor; 2018, Jordin Canada and more egregiously Ariel Atkins; 2016, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Williams. You can decide for yourself who they should have been picked above.
  5. Call it the Dorka Juhász Principle

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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