Notre Dame men's basketball: Jackson OK with baby steps

South Bend Tribune

Trading text messages earlier this fall with someone whose words carry a lot of weight with him, Notre Dame freshman guard Demetrius Jackson watched line after line of praise roll across his phone.

Irish coach Mike Brey had liked the way Jackson, a former Marian High School standout and 2013 McDonald’s All-American, worked that day in practice. He played with energy. He took all-important care of the basketball. He ran the team like a veteran and wasn’t afraid to say something when something needed to be said.

As Jackson absorbed the text messages later that night, he offered a brief but pointed response.

“Coach, just taking baby steps.”

Jackson was a part of as talented a McDonald’s High School All-American team that has ever arrived on the college basketball scene. Not even a month into their first seasons, Arizona forward Aaron Gordon (13.0 ppg., 9.0 rpg., 28.8 mpg.), forward Jabari Parker (22.4, 8.8, 27.6) of Duke, Kentucky big man Julius Randle (20.8, 13.6, 29.4) and Kansas sensation Andrew Wiggins (16.8, 8.3, 29.8) all have been touted as potential top picks in the June NBA draft.

Others from that group that came together in Chicago for a week last March quickly stepped into starting and starring roles — guard Jabari Bird (13.5, 4.0, 24.3) at Cal, the Harrison twins, Andrew (11.0, 2.8, 30.2) and Aaron (12.4, 2.6, 25.8), and sharp-shooter James Young (14.2, 2.8, 28.6), all at Kentucky. Forward Noah Vonleh (12.8, 10.2, 21.7) has already delivered a steady string of double-doubles for points and rebounds at Indiana and guard Nigel Williams-Goss (13.5, 4.5, 30.5) has the keys to the car and the ball in his hands at Washington.

Two have yet to play. Isaac Hamilton is sitting out the season after transferring over the summer from Texas El-Paso to UCLA while Chris Walker will miss at least the rest of the fall semester at Florida for academic issues.

Others like North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks (1.3, 2.0, 7.7) and Kennedy Meeks (6.7, 5.7, 12.7), Duke’s Matt Jones (3.0, 0.6, 9.0) and Kentucky’s Marcus Lee (6.4, 2.6, 10.4) have spent more time watching and waiting than racking up solid stat lines.

Four games into his freshman year, the 6-foot-1 Jackson falls into the good and chasing great category. Heading into Sunday’s home game against Army (2 p.m.) Jackson is averaging 6.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 17.0 minutes. He’s shooting 56.3 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 and is 5-for-5 from the foul line.

Jackson took a big step in Friday’s 84-69 victory over Santa Clara. He set career highs for points (13), rebounds (8) and minutes (23) and looked nothing like the tentative player he was the first three games. Jackson had a big hand scoring, rebounding and defending during a decisive second half. Following his rebound basket that drew a foul and capped a 12-0 run, Jackson displayed more emotion than he has since he arrived.

His progression has been as consistent and as steady as any and all questions about his game.

“I just have to be patient and work hard,” Jackson said. “You have to be patient and be persistent. It doesn’t all click immediately.”

It did the only other time Brey recruited a McDonald’s All-American guard to play for the Irish. In 2001, Chris Thomas stepped immediately into a starting spot and the school record books. He posted the only triple-double (24 points, 11 assists, 11 steals) in his first collegiate game.

Thomas started every game (a program-record 128) and sits fourth in school history with 2,195 points. He played over 4,000 minutes in his four-year career. Really good and at sometimes great his first two years, Thomas staggered through his final two seasons. He eventually fell out of favor with teammates and fans because of a knee injury and ineffectiveness.

So when Jackson responded in such a simple way to Brey’s texts earlier in the preseason, the head coach found it refreshing that someone so decorated in high school and as sought-after in the recruiting process would see the bigger picture.

“Not many McDonald’s All-Americans would reply,” Brey said. “Most of the guys would be like, ‘Coach, I’m not getting enough shots. How come I’m not starting?’ He understands it’s a long process.

“We’re on the same page as him.”

Starting is not yet an option as Jackson continues to learn the ways of the college basketball guard world from veterans Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. There’s a chance he could rotate into a top spot if Brey leans a little more on the perimeter-heavy look that busted open Friday’s game. But there’s also a chance Jackson spends this season as one of the first off the bench before taking over for Atkins next fall.

“I’m just going to be patient and keep working hard whether I was a starter or whether I was the last person off the bench,” Jackson said. “I just have to work hard every single day and keep getting better.

“I’ve gotten better.”

There are times when Jackson gets caught thinking too much. Should he pass it here? Drive it there off the ball screen? Pass it to that guy or this guy? His natural instincts need to guide him. He’s also struggled understanding his best spots to get shots.

Last week against Indiana State, Jackson finished 0-for-4 from 3. Afterward, Brey counseled his guard to look more to his mid-range game, maybe one dribble and a pull-up jumper and always be mindful of driving it. That puts pressure on the defense and can earn Jackson a steady stream of trips to the foul line for easy points.

After not getting to the free throw line in any of the first three games, Jackson went 5-for-5 on Friday.

“He’s still feeling his way,” Brey said. “If that explosion takes place soon, that’s OK. It happens in spurts right now, but it can happen at any time where it really takes off.”

 Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson is guarded by Indiana State's Khristian Smith Sunday November 17, 2013. at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN