“He’s got old man game,” a voice whispered, with admiration. I looked over my shoulder at two NBA scouts, both tapping away at their phones.
We were at the LeBron James Skills Academy, where about 100 of the top high school and college basketball players run drills and scrimmages in front of NBA scouts and media. The player they were talking about was Arizona freshman Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
It was an odd comment at first, since Jackson-Cartwright was easily the youngest looking player at the camp. He was at least 10 pounds lighter back then, and looked his age. But the observation was entirely accurate.
Even back in 2013, which seems like ages ago in the future driven world of recruiting, Jackson-Cartwright had a maturity to his game that made him stand out on a court full of NBA prospects. There were no questions about the point guard skills he brought to the table.
There were questions, though. Can he defend? Can his body survive the college game? Can he do the same things in a taller, stronger, more athletic league?
Those were legitimate criticisms. But fast forward a little over a year, and Jackson-Cartwright has answered all of them, definitively.
In limited minutes, Jackson-Cartwright has made an undeniable impact. Deft ball-handling, intelligent decision making, and court awareness have characterized his contributions so far, and he’s making a case for more minutes playing behind one of the country’s best point guards in fifth year senior TJ McConnell.
Those are the things that PJC was already known for. But at Arizona, Jackson-Cartwright has also improved vastly in all the areas people doubted him.
That begins with the work he did in the weight room, which has completely changed his body. Though he might appear slight of build, the physical transformation he made in a short period of time has been remarkable.
The added strength to both his upper and lower body has paid dividends, allowing him to play a fearless style of basketball. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jackson-Cartwright’s performance thus far has been his aggressiveness toward the basket, where he’s made brilliant moves despite massive size and weight disadvantages. Without the improvements he made to his physique, that would not be possible.
And he hasn’t been a liability on defense like some thought he might. Granted, he hasn’t played a full slate of minutes yet and things could change when teams start to gameplan against him. But Jackson-Cartwright has been an active, pesky defender who has stayed in front of his man. Improved defensive play is another result of reshaping his body.
From day one, Jackson-Cartwright has carried himself with the aplomb of a veteran point guard and it has definitely carried over to gamedays. But there’s a difference between looking good against Mount St. Mary’s and Cal State Northridge, and the way he looked good against #15 SDSU, a stalwart defensive team, in the Maui Invitational title game.
Arizona fans likely let out a collective “uh-oh” when McConnell picked up his third foul early in the game, as the Wildcats had a tendency to come unraveled without their floor leader last season. In a bitter, slugfest of a game, it could have been too much to ask of a freshman to keep the ship steady.
For Jackson-Cartwright, it wasn’t. McConnell was forced to sit with about 5 minutes left in the first half and the Wildcats trailing by two. They finished the period by outscoring SDSU 10-7 to take a 32-31 lead into the break, despite the proverbial chicken’s head being cut off. The sequence included an offensive rebound from Jackson-Cartwright, who immediately attacked the hoop with a layup high off the glass. He ended the game with three rebounds despite being the smallest player on the court.
And earlier, when McConnell picked up his first foul, Jackson-Cartwright hit the ground running. Within the span of 54 seconds midway through the first half, Jackson-Cartwright made a slick entry pass to Dusan Ristic for a layup, and on the next possession he hit Brandon Ashley at the perfect moment for an easy jumper. Those plays were made by Jackson-Cartwright and his intuitive grasp of running the offense.
It was like Arizona didn’t skip a beat when McConnell wasn’t out there. That’s night and day from the way it felt last year. Let’s give Jackson-Cartwright his due praise, he stepped up in Arizona’s biggest game of the year, against a quality opponent. That’s not easy for a freshman point guard. He only played 9 minutes, but they were all critical.
Both Kansas State and SDSU tried to press the Wildcats, a trend that shouldn’t worry UofA fans with ball-handlers like McConnell and PJC at the helm. Jackson-Cartwright’s control of the basketball in particular has been a revelation, showing a great understanding of how to use his body to shield the ball and a low, lightning quick dribble.
When the pressure is on, a lot of guards speed up and make mistakes. But Jackson-Cartwright’s maturity keeps him at a deliberate pace, changing gears at strategic moments to shed defenders and advance the ball. Long, athletic defenders can play harassing defense on him, but Jackson-Cartwright has the footwork and craftiness to shrug them off. He’s unfadeable.
We haven’t even really seen PJC’s jets in the open court, because he hasn’t needed to push it that fast yet. He’s savvy about picking his moments, that’s the old man game they were talking about. The speed of the game is a common obstacle for young players, but not for Jackson-Cartwright.
So far Jackson-Cartwright has an assist in every game, going for multiple dimes in four out of six contests. More impressive though, is the none too shabby 10:1 assist to turnover count he has accumulated. Not only is he making plays, he’s making the smart plays. That’s the old man game they were talking about.
I can’t say enough about how much Jackson-Cartwright has improved, or how much he’s silenced his critics. But luckily, his play has done the talking.
With the trajectory that his career has started on, the future is bright for both Jackson-Cartwright and Arizona. His rare combination of play-making instincts and beyond his years understanding of the game could make him one of the best point guards to ever play at Arizona.
That’s not as bold of a statement as it might seem. In the four years that Arizona fans will likely be fortunate enough to have PJC, he could blossom into the engine that makes the program run over the next few seasons. With the way he’s improved from high school to his freshman season, that’s a frightening thought for the rest of the Pac-12. And if Arizona goes far in that time, their success will be inextricably tied to Jackson-Cartwright.
If there was one thing that last season taught us, it’s that Sean Miller’s system flourishes with a cerebral, play-making point guard. The proof is in the pudding, as Arizona is 39-5 since McConnell started running the show.
So it should put a big smile on Wildcat fans’ faces knowing that when McConnell leaves, he’ll be handing the keys to someone that can live up to the Point Guard U moniker.