Dwane Casey’s tough love transformed Christian Wood from a waiver pickup to a player one year later a title contender was willing to invest $41 million in further developing. Casey has a similar rehabilitation project in mind for the 2020-21 Pistons season.
“If you took Josh’s name off and put Christian Wood’s name in, it’s the same thing,” Casey said of one of the free agents the Pistons added, Josh Jackson. “It’s the same thing. Everyone was saying, ‘Dwane, don’t mess with him. Leave him alone.’ I enjoy people who have a chip on their shoulder, who’ve been almost forgotten about as Josh has been.”
The fall from grace for Jackson, who grew up in Southfield and led Detroit Consortium to the 2014 Class B state title as a sophomore before leaving to spend his final two high school years at a California prep school, was steep and sudden. The consensus No. 1 recruit in 2016 – picking Kansas over the usual smorgasbord of blueblood programs, including Michigan State – and the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft, Jackson was shipped out of Phoenix for pennies on the dollar after his second season.
And in Memphis last season, Jackson was given a short leash and sent to the G League to prove he could stick to a straight and narrow path. Many of the whispers of immaturity and irresponsibility that dogged Wood – causing him to go undrafted in 2015 after two years at UNLV and bounce around the NBA for four years until blossoming in Detroit – followed Jackson, as well.
But Jackson showed extended flashes in Memphis once he’d laid an impressive foundation – on the court and away from it, as well – with his G League penance. The wayward 3-point shot fell at a 38 percent clip in the G League on a healthy sample size: 6.5 attempts per game in 26 games, during which Jackson averaged 20.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocked shots – the sort of across-the-board contributions that have always earmarked Jackson for stardom. In five March games for Memphis before the season was suspended, Jackson averaged 16.6 points in 21 minutes a game.
Humbled and back home, Jackson, 23, burns to use his time in a Pistons uniform as the springboard to the type of career expected of the NBA’s fourth overall pick.
“I’m just looking at it like there’s nowhere else for me to go but up,” he said this week as training camp got under way. “I’ve been to my lowest point. I feel like I’ve been moving in the right direction. I’m just trying to keep on the path. As long as I’m going up, then I’m happy.”
There’s a certain pressure – or temptations of convenience, perhaps – when players return to their hometowns and merge past and current worlds. But Jackson has moved too far down the path of progress to look over his shoulder now, he feels.
“I’ve got a lot of good people around me,” he said. “My mom is here. My grandmother. Lots of aunts and uncles who continue and have been looking out for me while I’ve been gone. I just keep my family closest, keep my circle tight and that’s pretty much been it. All my friends, pretty much, are gone playing overseas or in the NBA. So it should be pretty easy to stay focused.”
At his best, Jackson is that most coveted of NBA species for 2020 and beyond: a breathtaking athlete in a 6-foot-8 frame who can smother point guards and harass big men interchangeably. The Pistons, once bereft of such players, have added veterans Jackson and Jerami Grant and drafted Saddiq Bey to put in the pipeline with 2019 first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya, still just 19.
“I’m looking forward to coaching Josh and his skill set,” Casey said. “He gives us length, size at various positions.”
Jackson heard from Casey the same blunt message delivered to Wood a year ago.
“Christian will tell you. I said, ‘Look I’m in an easy position. If you don’t do it here, probably the next team you play for, you’re going to be speaking another language.’ That’s all I asked of Josh: Come in and do your job, be a good citizen, be a good teammate and you will get the opportunity.”
Jackson acknowledges his impatience as a contributing factor to his NBA career veering off the tracks and vows to apply the lesson to making it right in his hometown.
“I had to realize at one point that it’s not a race,” he said. “Everybody finds success on their own time. I feel like I’ve been moving in the right direction. It’s time for me to take another step and take it farther. I feel like I’m ready to do that this year.”
“We have a very clean slate,” Casey said. “Sometimes men need opportunities and we’re here to do that.”