Analysis: Demetrius Jackson goes from "we" to "me" to chase NBA

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He helped the Notre Dame men’s basketball program enjoy unparalleled success the last two seasons.

He helped the school win its first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, helped it to a program-record 56 victories, helped get it to consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances for the first time since 1978-79.

One of the most dynamic guards ever to play at Purcell Pavilion, former Irish captain Demetrius Jackson often thought of everyone but himself. Before games, he would shake the hands of ushers outside the locker room. During games, he made sure that everyone else got theirs first. After games, he would praise teammates and credit coaches for putting him in position to do well.

Seldom did he embrace being singled out from the sum of the program’s parts. It was too … uncomfortable. He sometimes went to painful/cliché-ridden lengths to stress that his success was possible because of others, regardless of his deep toolbox of talents.

But the time finally came this week for Jackson to help himself, to do it for the “me” instead of the “we.”

While the rest of campus went about its mid-week business on an early spring Wednesday afternoon, Jackson was seated in front of a bank of cameras and microphones and reporters, some of whom he’s known since before he was somebody.

He needed less than 15 minutes to outline why the time is right for him to become the first Irish men's player in 15 years to leave school following his junior year so he can chase life’s next chapter at the game’s highest level.

Jackson’s all-in on the June 23 NBA draft. He will not stick around campus for his senior season. He will not even stick around for what remains of the spring semester.

Despite his wardrobe choice Wednesday — a blue golf shirt with the Notre Dame and UnderArmour logos on each breast — Jackson’s already gone, a free agent ready to cash in. Big.

While his former head coach was en route to the Final Four in Houston and his former teammates gathered in the back of the basketball auditorium, it was Jackson alone sitting and smiling for the media. He again said all the right things, hit all the right talking points.

He aced the first of many job interviews in the coming weeks as he again worked to make it about everyone else.

“I’ve just got a great support system around me – my family, my friends, my teammates, coaches,” Jackson said of chasing the NBA dream. “It’s kind of something for yourself, but at the same time my team still supported me.”

But Jackson’s we-to-me transition commenced early in the NCAA Tournament. The day after a sloppy and sluggish effort against Michigan in the first round, Jackson talked about needing to find another gear for his game. He needed to just cut it loose and not worry about everyone else. Worry about himself.

The next day, he drove the lane and threw down a right-hand hammer dunk and dominated the Stephen F. Austin game. Later that week, he helped carry Notre Dame past Wisconsin in a scintillating Sweet 16 showdown.

Two nights later marked the beginning of the end for Jackson in a Notre Dame uniform against North Carolina. He scored 26 points, one shy of his career high, and directed the Irish offense as efficiently as he’s ever done. He played so well, so confidently that many hoped it was a preview of what was to come next season.

Instead, it was one last look.

Brey didn’t admit it afterward, but deep down he knew that his days with Jackson likely were done. It had been moving that way since before Christmas.

Next up on Jackson’s agenda is choosing an agent, many of whom have had their underlings circling the periphery of the program for months. They’ve worked and studied the angles, trying to get in good graces with Jackson’s foster family just in case … wink, wink, you know … wink, wink.

Then it’s on to workouts for NBA teams, the pre-draft combine in Chicago, hammering out a potential shoe contract, maxing out endorsement deals and then, ultimately, Jackson hearing his name called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver as one of 30 first-round picks that June night in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the same arena where Jackson's game finally fell into place.

A first-round selection brings a guaranteed three-year deal with enough zeroes at the end of the paycheck that Jackson once could only dream of one day earning.

At that point, it also will be about making good with his birth mother, Juanita Jones.

“When I was younger, I promised my mother I would buy her a new home,” Jackson said. “That’s one of my goals, something I’ll be able to accomplish in the next couple years.”

Had Jackson stayed at Notre Dame, the next 12 months of his life were already determined. Summer school (ugh!) in June and July. Preseason practice in September. The regular season in November, conference play in January and February with another expected deep tournament run in March. This time next year, he’d be decompressing from one final successful run.

Jackson now has no idea where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing this time next year. On a back-to-back in Utah? Sacramento? An extended road trip through Texas? Playing? Sitting? Wondering?

It’s all a combination of exciting, intimidating, scary and intriguing for someone who already has beaten long odds to get this far.

Born in South Bend, raised in Mishawaka, it’s time to discover the world beyond St. Joseph County and the Marian High School/Notre Dame bubble he’s been in the last seven years.

It’s time to see what the world can offer Jackson, and what Jackson can offer the world.

“This is my home so kind of leaving the nest for the first time (is) a very difficult decision,” Jackson said. “Ultimately, it’s the best one for me.”

As it should be.

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Former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson addresses reporters about his decision to enter the NBA draft.Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ