The Pistons suddenly have a glut of guards since the return of Killian Hayes and Dennis Smith Jr. from injury to go with recently acquired Cory Joseph and rookie Saben Lee.
Which made it hard to see where Frank Jackson fit into the puzzle. But two things have converged to clear the fog a little bit. First is Dwane Casey’s intent on playing two point guards – or two players capable of manning the position, at least – at a time. And the second thing – and probably the most important factor – is that Jackson is getting kind of hard to ignore.
So it was again on Saturday night in Portland, when Jackson’s scoring prevented a game that eventually got away from the Pistons in the second half from doing so in the first. Down 16 early in the second quarter, Jackson’s 11 first-half points helped the Pistons close to within a point before Portland closed the half on a 8-0 run to lead by nine.
“I’ve been as impressed with Frank as much as anybody and nobody’s really talking about him,” Dwane Casey said after Jackson scored 17 points in 21 minutes of the 118-103 loss. “I’m as guilty as anyone of taking him for granted.”
A city that will forever hold Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson in its heart appreciates the value of a bench scorer who heats up in a hurry more than most fan bases. Jackson is showing signs of developing into a reliable scoring threat off of the bench, scoring in double figures in four of his last six games and in nine games since moving into the rotation 15 games ago. It’s not as easy as the ones who do it consistently make it look, but Jackson is turning into a reliable source of scoring.
“It’s just the game of basketball. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life – go in there, make plays, compete, play hard,” he said. “Honestly, it’s pretty simple. Stay ready and you compete and play hard.”
“He’s instant offense off the bench,” Casey said. “He’s one of our best defenders on the ball. That young man is really growing right before us. For me, he’s grown as much as anyone else. Just really impressed with his approach. He stays ready. It’s not easy to come off the bench and score the way he does with ease.”
As with so many young players in an NBA where teams routinely take 40 percent or more of their shots from the 3-point line, the swing skill that has boosted Jackson’s profile this season is improved 3-point shooting. After hitting those shots at a 31.9 percent clip in his first two seasons with New Orleans, Jackson came into Saturday’s game hitting 43.1 percent for the Pistons this season and hit 2 of 5 against the Blazers.
“That’s years of work. As soon as I got in the league, I was fortunate enough to be put with some good vets, great shooters,” Jackson said, citing Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick from his time in New Orleans and Wayne Ellington with the Pistons. “I’ve just been around a lot of good shooters and feel like I’ve picked up a lot of good techniques and continue to work at it every day. This summer I felt like I took that leap and got myself right. Just continue to keep shooting and get that muscle memory with my hands and my form. I’m just going to continue to keep pushing and keep getting better.”
It’s been four years since Jackson was picked 31st overall after his freshman season at Duke, but he’s still just 22 years old and very much fits on a roster with 11 players 24 or younger. And he wasn’t the only young Pistons player who’s flown a little under the radar this season to remind us he’s still part of their future on Saturday. Sekou Doumbouya, slowed by minor setbacks much of the season, continued his recent surge with an 11-point outing that included some eye-opening defensive sequences mixed in with his strengths of running the floor and cutting to the basket.
“His gift is running the floor. Once he puts his head down and stays in great condition to run the floor, he does a great job of running, straight-line runner,” Casey said of the 20-year-old. “Now he’s mixing in finishing. Some of the threes that opened up outside was because he was rim running and taking the defense with him. Sekou has had a good couple of weeks playing on both ends of the floor.”
The Pistons played without Jerami Grant again, his second straight missed with knee soreness. The Pistons wrap up their five-game Western Conference road swing on Sunday with a stiff back-to-back test against the Los Angeles Clippers. All those young legs will be put to the test, but the safest bet is that Casey will have his team lay it on the line again as it has consistently this season.
“I love coach Case, man. He’s a players’ coach, but at the end of the day, he coaches you, too,” Jackson said. “He helps you. He lets you know when you’re making mistakes, but it’s constructive criticism. That’s what you need in a leader.”