There are two lottery picks ahead of Frank Jackson in the starting lineup and two phenomenally athletic wings blocking a path to a defined role with the Pistons bench unit. So it’s simultaneously tough to figure where Jackson fits in Dwane Casey’s rotation yet difficult to imagine a scenario where he isn’t in it.
After missing a week of training camp with a mild ankle sprain, Jackson was arguably the best player on the floor Saturday when the Pistons held an open practice at Little Caesars Arena. He did then what he he’d done consistently over the final six weeks last season when he gave the Pistons consistent bench scoring: a 12.1 scoring average over 31 games in 22 minutes a game. He did it efficiently, too, shooting 47 percent overall and 41.6 percent from the 3-point arc on 4.4 attempts per game.
Drafted in 2017 but still just 23 years old, Jackson has morphed into a different player than perhaps even he anticipated but it’s to his credit that he’s been able to watch, learn from accomplished teammates and discerned how to carve out a niche.
“His activity on the offensive end is hard to keep up with,” Casey said. “He has that knack of finding open spots and getting open.”
Jackson came out of high school in Utah a highly coveted recruit after blowing up on the AAU circuit in the summer of 2015 going into his senior season. He switched his commitment from BYU to Duke when the offers started pouring in, but one year in college left NBA scouts wondering what he was. Recruited as a point guard, Jackson didn’t quite fit as a playmaker and wasn’t quite big enough to earn a first-round grade as a wing.
He wound up going 31st overall, the first pick of the second round, but missed all of his rookie season in New Orleans with a foot injury. He had occasional success with the Pelicans but over his two seasons there Jackson was a 31 percent 3-point shooter. That’s the ultimate swing skill for perimeter players in today’s NBA and being 4 or 5 percentage points below league average sunk Jackson’s value. He signed with Oklahoma City in the rush to start the 2020-21 season but was waived before the opener, landing with the Pistons on a two-way deal.
But while he was in New Orleans, Jackson studied the way J.J. Redick moved without the ball and how he and Jrue Holiday were so precise with their mechanics. With the Pistons last season, he tapped into Wayne Ellington’s 12 seasons of NBA experience as a 3-point specialist to further refine his techniques.
“Those are some of the best shooters to play this game,” Jackson said. “To be around Wayne all last year, to understand footwork and where to place the ball. Even with J.J. and Jrue, people don’t really understand how locked in he’s been. I can go down the list and name a bunch of guys who are elite shooters. I don’t shoot exactly like everyone else, but you can take bits and pieces of what works for them and incorporate them into your game. It’s been a real blessing to be around some of the most talented dudes in the world.”
Jackson parlayed his second chance with the Pistons into a two-year contract as a restricted free agent last summer, happy to return to play for Casey and with an organization he’s found to be especially welcoming and nurturing.
“It’s been awesome,” Jackson said. “I just love the environment that everyone has built here. The energy is good. The guys are great. The staff is awesome. It’s cool to have those relationships with the people you work with.”
One reason it’s hard to imagine a Pistons rotation without Jackson is there’s nobody else quite like him on the roster. He’s an underrated athlete – his athletic testing numbers at the 2017 NBA draft combine were eye-opening, including best scores in vertical leap (42 inches) and shuttle run. Jackson’s 3-point shooting has tied it all together, helping him use his athleticism to become an effective penetrator and scorer at the rim.
A consistent bench scorer is an invaluable asset and it’s unusual to find a young player who can fill that niche more than sporadically. It makes sense given that the vast majority of players good enough to make it to the NBA have never known anything but starting and playing big enough minutes to ease into a rhythm – a luxury bench scorers simply don’t enjoy.
“There’s a physical aspect to this game, but there’s also a mental aspect to it,” Jackson said. “That’s been huge for me. I’ve been blessed with a lot of vets early in my career to try to hone me and help me understand certain roles. They’ve talked me through certain things. Coming from handling the ball your whole life to playing off the ball and learning. At this level, everyone is so athletic so it’s much more to the game that catching and shooting. It’s spacing the floor, how you run down the court, things like that.”
The Pistons are set to start back-to-back lottery picks Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes in the backcourt with Jackson in a battle for wing minutes with the second unit with Josh Jackson – off to a strong start in camp also – and Hamidou Diallo, who like Frank Jackson re-signed as a restricted free agent this off-season.
Over four years in the NBA, Frank Jackson has learned to live by a very simple rule: One day at a time, control what you can control.
“Just continue to focus on the work,” he said of the rotation battle. “Everyone has a role on this team. Focus on your role, play hard, make the right reads, play the right way, be a good teammate and the results take care of itself.”