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WNBA Draft Watch 2023: Can Rickea Jackson take her game to the next level as a member of the Tennessee Lady Vols?

Rickea Jackson transferred from Mississippi State to Tennessee last March, staying in the SEC but moving to a situation with far less volatility. Should she get acquainted with her new teammates early and successfully, the potential is there for the multi-talented Jackson to earn a top selection in the 2023 WNBA Draft.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 SEC Women’s Tournament - Kentucky vs Mississippi State
Rickea Jackson can score from just about anywhere on the court, but she’s at her best when she’s using her size to take opponents off the dribble.
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When evaluating WNBA draft prospects, their theoretical fit on a WNBA roster is usually one of the first things that’s brought up. How will their games translate? How will their skillsets complement those of their new teammates? What will their roles be as professionals?

In some cases, similar questions need to be asked while those players are still in college. Rickea Jackson, who began her collegiate career at Mississippi State before transferring to Tennessee this past spring, is a great example of a player whose statistics need quite a bit of additional context.

Jackson originally committed to play for the Bulldogs under Vic Schaefer and was considered one of the SEC’s rising stars, but was on her third head coach in as many seasons by the time she was a junior. Schaefer had moved on to coach the Texas Longhorns and was replaced by Nikki McCray-Penson, who resigned after just one season. Associate head coach Doug Novak took over in the interim, but Mississippi State did not name a full-time replacement until after the 2021-22 season had ended, by which point the program had virtually no continuity on or off the court.

The environment she had once committed to now almost unrecognizable, Jackson chose to enter the transfer portal in the middle of the 2021-22 season, eventually settling on Tennessee. There, she joins a talented roster that expects to finish near the top of the SEC standings; if all goes well for Jackson and the Lady Vols, she’ll be one of several Tennessee players to hear their names called in the 2023 WNBA Draft.

Honors and statistics

Jackson was one of the most highly-touted high school recruits in the class of 2019, earning a No. 5 overall ranking from ESPN HoopGurlz and a No. 3 overall ranking from ProspectsNation. She was named Michigan’s Miss Basketball as a senior and was also chosen as a McDonald’s All-American.

Jackson made an immediate impact at Mississippi State, leading the team in scoring as a freshman (15.1 points per game) while averaging over 30 minutes per game. She continued to lead the Bulldogs in scoring as a sophomore (14.9) and as a junior (20.3), routinely making appearances on national player of the year watch lists and earning a Top-10 finish in Cheryl Miller Award voting (given to the nation’s top small forward) in 2022, despite playing only 15 games that season.

Internationally, Jackson has been one of USA Basketball’s brightest young stars. She won a gold medal as part of Team USA’s 3x3 team in FIBA’s 2019 U18 World Cup, and that same year won a silver medal at the 2019 World University Games. Jackson led the entire World University Games competition in scoring at 22.2 points per game, shooting 53.2 percent from the field.

A change of scenery can benefit Jackson

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi State vs South Carolina
Jackson is comfortable scoring the ball at all three levels. How will the Lady Vols utilize her skillet?
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, there’s a lot to like about Jackson’s game. A 6’2 perimeter scorer, she’s capable of scoring at all three levels — though her dribble-drive game is probably her biggest strength, she won’t hesitate to take and knock down longer jumpshots if defenses don’t respect her.

As Jackson’s role at Mississippi State evolved, her versatile scoring package was stretched to its limits, for better or for worse. Under Novak — who envisioned Jackson as more of a forward/center than a guard — it was understood that she’d be commanding more and more attention from defenses, so the Bulldogs played her all over the court in an attempt to get her in mismatches against slower, less-skilled players.

This strategy yielded mixed results. Jackson ranked second among all SEC players in scoring as a junior and more than doubled her blocked shot percentage (3.6 percent) from previous seasons (1.1 percent and 1.9 percent), but scored the ball at just a 43.9 percent effective field goal percentage, which was the lowest scoring efficiency mark of her career thus far, per Her Hoop Stats. Jackson was scoring a lot of points, but that wasn’t translating to Bulldog wins, and the chemistry among Mississippi State players was, by most accounts, nonexistent.

“It was a lot of selfishness,” Jackson said of her junior season at Mississippi State.

It’s clear that Jackson is best-suited to play in a free-flowing offense, so how will that look in Tennessee? She’ll be flanked by other big names like Jordan Horston and Tamari Key (as well as graduate transfer Jasmine Franklin, who averaged a double-double for Missouri State last season), which she says factored into her decision to join the Lady Vols.

“With me and Jasmine [Franklin] coming in, we’re pretty quick guards, so I feel like we will be able to play that up-tempo speed the whole game if we want to,” Jackson told GoVols247. She also praised Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper, who she said “wants to play faster” and who surely has big things planned for her star transfer.

Things may not be seamless out of the gate, however. It’s not always easy to get several players who are used to having the ball in their hands on the same page; Horston, who herself was overtaxed as a primary ball handler for Tennessee last season, posted a massive 34.4 percent usage rate last season. Jackson’s usage rate as a junior was 31.4 percent; she and Horston ranked second and first among all SEC players in this metric, respectively. Both players will ideally be sacrificing some volume in favor of scoring efficiency in 2022-23.

For Jackson, there are several avenues to this. An above-average athlete for her size, she should thrive in an up-tempo system; 22.1 percent of her offensive positions last season came in transition, and the Lady Vols (7.3 percent steal rate in 2021-22) could use a player who can turn defense into offense.

Look for Jackson’s jumpshot to come back around, too. She shot 24.3 percent on 4.7 3-point attempts per game as a junior, and according to Synergy Sports, shot 23.7 percent on non-dribble jumpers. She’s a better shooter than that, and playing alongside a someone who commands a significant amount of attention in the post in Key should open things back up for Jackson.

Regardless, Jackson stands to gain plenty from her change of scenery. There’s not much consensus regarding who will be picked where in the 2023 WNBA Draft beyond the first couple of picks (the 2022-23 NCAA season doesn’t begin for another month and a half, after all), meaning that a high-ceiling player like Jackson is primed to make a great first impression right off the bat. Look for her to play a prominent role — and a more optimized one — on a strong Lady Vols team this coming season.

Watch her play

It won’t take long for the Lady Vols to get to the meat and potatoes of their non-conference schedule, with games against the Ohio State Buckeyes (Nov. 8) and Indiana Hoosiers (Nov. 14) among the biggest programs on the docket. They’ll later play a couple of nationally-televised games against the Virginia Tech Hokies (Dec. 4; ESPN2) and the Stanford Cardinal (Dec. 18; ABC); Jackson has faced Stanford before, recording 15 points and four rebounds against the Cardinal when she was a freshman in 2019.

Jackson and the Lady Vols will also get a shot against arguably the two strongest programs in the country in 2023. Tennessee will renew its rivalry with the UConn Huskies on Jan. 26, a game that is currently not listed on national TV but has a chance at being flexed in at a later date. The defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks will come to Knoxville on Feb. 23 (SEC Network); Jackson is well-familiar with the Gamecocks as an opponent, though she struggled shooting the ball against them last season, going 5-for-19 from the field in a Mississippi State loss.