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Editor’s Note: We are beyond thrilled to welcome Alex Sundin to Alamodome Audible as our Basketball Correspondent. Alex recently graduated from UTSA with a B.A. in History and has been following the men’s basketball program for many years. We’re so excited to have his expertise contributing to the site! Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter @AlexSundinUTSA.
Author: Alex Sundin – @AlexSundinUTSA
As a recent alumnus, it occurred to me that many of my fellow Roadrunners don’t realize that amongst our ranks is one of perhaps the most effective student-athletes our university has ever seen. I know that is a big claim even though UTSA has never been an athletics powerhouse or even a notable standout among our Texas neighbors but for once, our hills of oak and cedar are graced by perhaps one of, if not THE best scorer in college basketball, and his name is Jhivvan Jackson.
Jackson, a native Puerto Rican, arrived at UTSA in the fall of 2017 after a successful high school career at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas (DFW, for the unacquainted). Although he averaged 22ppg his senior year, after a disappointing early exit in the second round of the state playoffs, Jackson flew under the radar as a recruit, receiving little attention from major D1 schools.
Jackson would eventually commit to UTSA after Head Coach Steve Henson, who in 2016 was entering his first season at UTSA after helping lead Oklahoma to the Final Four as an assistant coach, recruited the “Puerto Rican Allen Iverson” at a high school all-star game in New York City during Jackson’s senior year.
Jackson’s arrival in 2017 could not have come at a more important time. Two seasons prior, after a disappointing 2015-16 season which saw the Roadrunners finish with one of the worst records in the entire country at 5-27, UTSA parted with long-time head coach Brooks Thompson (Thompson sadly passed away in June of 2016, sending a shock into the hearts of Roadrunners everywhere).
Henson arrived at a program that was attempting to start over. To make matters worse, the first-year head coach entered the 2016-17 season without two of the previous season’s top scorers (Ryan Bowie graduated and Senior Christian Wilson was suspended indefinitely for legal troubles). However, Henson and his staff turned around a 5-27 team into a 14-19 team, even winning in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament against Western Kentucky, the first C-USA tournament win in school history.
Many Roadrunners fans, after seeing the calamitous season prior, praised Henson and his staff and were hopeful for a bright future. Although the Roadrunners were looking toward the 2017-18 season with optimism, Henson and his staff again were struck with a heart-wrenching blow as they watched star forward Jeff Beverly, the team’s leader in points per game, walk away in the summer to pursue his final year of eligibility at Iowa State. Entering the 2017-18 season, Henson was again without a reliable scorer to run the offense through.
In stepped Jhivvan Jackson. It didn’t take long for the undersized point guard to fit into Henson’s plans, averaging 18 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in his freshman season. Jackson’s offensive production, alongside fellow true freshman Keaton Wallace, laid the foundation for what looked to be the start of a dynamic scoring duo that put Conference USA on notice. In only his second season in San Antonio, Henson and his staff were yet again able to build on the successes of the previous season, going 20-15 (UTSA’s first winning season since 2011-12, and the Roadrunners’ first winning season in Conference USA), while Jackson was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year, Second Team All-Conference USA, and, alongside teammate Keaton Wallace, both were named to the All-Conference USA Freshman team.
Coach Henson would also go on to win Conference USA Coach of the Year. However, the young ‘Runners’ season of 17/18 was cut short after Jackson tore his ACL late into the season, which ultimately led to a second-round defeat to the eventual conference champions, Marshall. Again, a bitter pill to swallow at the end of a promising year for Henson and co.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Roadrunners expected big things from their young, explosive core, even with Jackson missing a few games early on as he continued to rehab his hobbled knee. Fears of his injury leaving lasting problems quickly evaporated, as Jackson, alongside Wallace, continued to build upon his offensive production, averaging 23 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists on 38% shooting, helping to lead the Roadrunners to another winning season, going 17-15, while Jackson and Wallace together would go on to be one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the entire country, averaging 43 points together.
As a sophomore, Jackson started to grab national headlines for his scoring production. On December 21st, 2018, Jackson scored 41 points against Illinois State as the star guard was named National Player of the Week by the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA); the first time anyone from UTSA has ever received such an award. On January 26th, 2019, Jackson and Wallace helped UTSA overcome an 18-point deficit with less than 4 minutes left in the game to complete a historic come-from-behind victory against Old Dominion. The Roadrunners’ comeback victory received national attention both on social media and on ESPN.
Five days later, on January 31st, Jackson scored 46 points, setting a school record for points in a game in an overtime loss on the road against Western Kentucky. This was not the only time Jackson would find himself amongst UTSA’s all-time leaders. Jackson’s 18/19 season ranks in the top ten for Field Goals (5th), Field Goal Attempts (2nd), 3-Point Field Goals (3rd), 3-Point Field Goal Attempts (3rd), Free Throw Percentage (6th), Points (3rd), Points per Game (4th), Player Efficiency Rating (3rd), Usage Percentage (1st), Offensive Box Plus/Minus (4th), and Box Plus/Minus (5th).
Jackson’s sophomore season did not go unnoticed by the conference, as he was named to the All-Conference USA First Team. However, much like the previous three seasons under Henson’s watch, the 18/19 season, one which provided Roadrunners fans with optimism for a potential conference title, crashed in UTSA’s opening round loss to UAB. Another season of promise ends in bitter disappointment. The disappointment, however, would not be short-lived.
Entering into the 2019-2020, many expected the Roadrunners to finally turn the corner from being a winning team that loses early in the conference tournament to a team that is competing for a conference title. Though the loss of multi-year starter Giovanni De Nicolao would certainly be felt, the Roadrunners entered into the new season with Jackson, Wallace, and senior Byron Frohnen, the program’s career leader in offensive, defensive and total rebounds, at the heart of Steve Henson’s starting five.
Anticipation stirred around the Convocation Center as the potential for a true breakout season from the Roadrunners felt as if it were on the horizon, but that feeling of optimism was short-lived. After jumping out to an 0-5 start, UTSA was never able to fully right the ship, eventually going a disappointing 13-19 (7-11 in conference), the worst season of Henson’s tenure, and crashed out of the conference tournament again in a first-round defeat to UAB. That being said, the Roadrunners’ trend of being individual stat freaks while being unable to win meaningful games continued.
Jackson, in his junior season, would go on to average a staggering 27 points per game, making him the second-highest scorer in the country behind Markus Howard of Marquette, with 6 rebounds and 2 assists to follow. Notably, after dropping 45 points in an overtime win against conference foe Old Dominion, Jackson surpassed the 2,000 point mark for his career as he would go on to collect another First Team All-Conference appearance at the end of the season. Jackson’s 19/20 season could best be defined as an offensive supernova as the junior from Puerto Rico would go on to set school records for field goals, field goal attempts, 3-point field goals (tied with Wallace’s 18/19 season total), 3-point attempts, points, points per game, player efficiency rating, usage percentage, offensive win shares, offensive box plus/minus and box plus/minus. In other words, Jackson, in 19/20, was the most dominant offensive player in UTSA basketball history, all the while the team continued to struggle. Thus begs the question: what isn’t clicking, and who is to blame?
Defense, Defense, Defense
To quote San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, “You have to make shots to win basketball games…You also have to get back on defense, so it was a double-whammy.”
On its surface, it is hard to question Steve Henson’s tenure so far at UTSA. At his first press conference alongside former Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, Henson outlined his intentions for the Roadrunners. “We’re going to play fast, we are going to play up-tempo, we’re going to push the ball, throw it ahead at every opportunity in attack…it’s a fun style, it’s the way kids want to play.” In the four years he’s been in charge, Henson has kept his word. Notably, he turned one of the worst teams in the country into an offensive juggernaut that has averaged 75 points per game, resulting in one of the best offenses in Conference-USA for the last three seasons.
However, the defensive side of the game has been a completely different story. Over the last four seasons, Henson’s Roadrunners have given up on average 74 points per game, which has consistently resulted in one of the worst defenses in the conference (in 19/20, the Roadrunners had both the highest-scoring offense in the conference and gave up the most points per game of any conference team). Having a high scoring offense is admirable but is meaningless if you can’t keep the other team from scoring, and in each of Henson’s seasons the Roadrunners’ defense has continued to be ranked in the bottom half of all division one basketball programs, going as low as 329th of 359 possible teams in 19/20.
Any way you slice it, the Roadrunners’ continued downfall has been their defensive struggles. It is hard to excuse this as anything other than Henson’s fault. Entering into his fifth season in charge, Henson has had the time to recruit players and make significant adjustments to the defensive scheme, and if he has, then clearly nothing is working.
Continually, it is worth pointing out that Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace, Byron Frohnen, and Giovanni De Nicolao, who is 8th all-time for assists per game, were all Henson recruits, which suggests one of two things. Either Henson’s recruiting ability is leading to extremely inconsistent results, or Henson is not doing enough to get the most out of the players he has brought in, with the exception of the four who were previously named. It is hard to put such pressure on a coaching staff who is attempting to manage a team through unprecedented times, but regardless, if someone like Jhivvan Jackson leaves UTSA without even getting the slightest sniff of a conference championship, blame must be pointed at Henson and his continued defensive struggles.
I know what you’re probably thinking, “are you seriously about to make the case that Jhivvan Jackson, a guy who has played a handful of meaningful games his entire college career, should be in the NBA?” Yes, but hear me out.
Jackson, although undersized, has numbers that simply cannot be ignored. Allow me, if you will, to make a stretch comparison to a current NBA All-Star. In his time at Weber State, Damien Lillard, the current starting point guard for the Portland Trailblazers, averaged 19 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists on 45% from the field. To compare, Jackson has averaged 23 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists on 41% from the field. Continually, while Jackson has had a higher usage percentage over his career as compared to Lillard (36% to Lillard’s 29%), Jackson’s strength of schedule has been significantly harder than Lillard’s (-0.15 to Lillard’s -2.21). What do these numbers effectively mean? Jackson is scoring more against harder competition than Lillard was, even if Jackson is seeing more of the ball.
While, yes, these two players are different, and I am not saying that Jackson is by any means the next Damien Lillard or better than the star point guard, but what I am saying is that Jackson’s game fits with the current fast-paced, high scoring, position-less basketball that has come to define the NBA recently. I do not expect Jackson to be a first-round pick, nor would I be surprised if Jackson doesn’t get drafted at all, but I do think the stats show that he is at least capable to be strongly considered for an opportunity. If Bryn Forbes, an NBA shooting guard who went undrafted after averaging 13 points per game on 45% shooting from the field while in college, can make it to the league even though his defensive game leaves much to be desired, then why can’t Jhivvan?
Jackson or Wallace?
Before I conclude, I would be remised if I didn’t compare UTSA’s two stars (thank you to u/austinkid2000 for the involuntary suggestion). On first glace one might assume that Wallace is a better all-around player than Jackson is, and I partially believe that is because Wallace, unlike Jackson, passes the metaphorical eye test better than Jackson. It is hard to give a true explanation for this phenomenon as it is entirely based on personal perception, however I chalk it up to the fact that Wallace is not undersized, standing at 6’3” and 185lbs to Jackson’s 6’0”, 170lbs stature. On first glace one may also assume that Jackson is better simply because they both are terrific scorers who, at any given time, could produce magnificent offensive displays. Because they are so similar, and their careers at UTSA will always be likened to one another, I think it would be smart to look at their career stat-lines as of the time of writing this (12/2/20).
Below are their career stat lines (all numbers rounded up):
They’re clearly close, and perhaps if Wallace was the primary ball-handler then this would be a different story, but I’d also argue that from what I’ve seen, Wallace works best when he’s not the primary ball-handler. Look back at how he did when both Jackson and De Nicolao were around him. In 18/19 (i.e. Gio’s last season and Jackson & Wallace were sophomores), Wallace averaged 20ppg (most in his career), 5rpg (most in his career), and 2apg (lowest in his career). His efficiency rating (22) and eFG% (54%) were also the highest of his career so far. Clearly, he is best when there are more playmakers on the floor with him, or at least, that’s how I choose to read those numbers. I think Jackson is a more well-rounded scorer and has proven that he can score in surplus regardless of how many playmakers or ball-handlers surround him.
These stats also suggest something of equally important value that should be considered. If Wallace is clearly our second-best offensive weapon on the floor, then what has Henson done in the last two years of recruiting to adequately meet the needs of our scorers? Unlike Jackson, Wallace’s stats are showing a slight regression since the departure of De Nicolao, and if the answer really is that we need another playmaker, then where is he? We need to fill the holes that De Nicolao and Frohnen have left if we want to be truly competitive, and it shouldn’t take a guy on this website to crack such a code.
We know that Henson can bring quality players here, but we don’t know if he can get them to win. The inclusions of Eric Parrish, Cedrick Alley Jr. and Jordan Ivy-Curry should provide the Roadrunners with size and greater spacing, but whether or not they can gel into the system quickly enough to push this team to greater heights remains to be seen (fingers crossed though!).
Jhivvan Jackson, UTSA’s undersized point-guard from Puerto Rico (listed height is 6’0″), is perhaps one of the most impressive athletes that have ever graced our halls. While at UTSA, he has broken nearly every school record imaginable while going on to be one of the best offensive players in the entire country.
As he enters into his final season at UTSA, Jackson is currently the program’s leader in points, points per game, player efficiency rating, usage percentage, offensive plus/minus, and box plus/minus. This means that Jackson is not only the best scorer UTSA has ever seen, he’s also the most efficient while still seeing the ball more than anyone else before him.
While his successes have been eye-opening, there has also left much to be desired, primarily due to his team’s inability to make defensive stops consistently. If Jackson has any hopes to one day play under the brightest of lights, he will need to continue his offensive outpouring while simultaneously helping his team on the other end.
As for Steve Henson, this season is huge for him. If this Roadrunners team cannot capitalize on the final season of the Jackson-Wallace era, then I don’t know where else he can turn. The blame should fall on the shoulders of Henson if this team can’t reach even the semifinals of the conference tournament, as anything less will go down as a bitterly disappointing end for Jhivvan Jackson’s career at UTSA.
Here is Jhivvan’s highlight video, if you’d like to see more.
UTSA’s Sports Reference page: https://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/texas-san-antonio/
UTSA basketball statistics: https://goutsa.com/sports/2007/3/3/743101.aspx?path=mbball
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