Former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson learns about life as basketball pro

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Cutting across the Midwest darkness of a late-March morning, the car carried a former Notre Dame men’s basketball standout to his next work assignment.

Travel can be cruel in the NBA Development League, where charter flights and five-star resort accommodations of the big leagues give way to extended-stay hotels and chasing connecting flights in the minors. The itinerary handed former Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson earlier this week was off-the-charts challenging.

Jackson and Jordan Mickey, second-round NBA draft picks a year apart by the Boston Celtics and teammates with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, boarded a Chicago-bound flight late Monday out of Logan International Airport. The plan was to connect at O’Hare Airport for Grand Rapids, where they would meet up with their Red Claw teammates for Tuesday’s key late-season contest against the Grand Rapids Drive.

When the first flight was delayed, Jackson and Mickey missed their connection. They spent five hours in a downtown Chicago hotel. The Celtics arranged for a car service to ferry the pair the 178 miles over to Grand Rapids.

The car arrived Tuesday morning at 5:30. Jackson and Mickey crawled into the backseat for the ride around Indiana, Jackson’s home state, and up through Michigan. Just before 9:30 a.m. – 90 minutes before the scheduled tip at a place called the DeltaPlex Arena, a warehouse-like 5,000-seat structure that opened in 1952 and sits in an industrial park northwest of downtown – Jackson emerged from the visitor’s locker room with a hoodie drawn over his head. He looked like he hadn’t slept. Less than two hours later, he was guarding former University of Detroit standout and NBA veteran Ray McCallum in a game with heavy playoff implications.

“It is what it is,” the 22-year-old Jackson said with his trademark shrug and smile. “It prepares you for obstacles in life that you’ve got to overcome, to try and play well and get a win.”

Jackson could have just skipped Tuesday’s game for a solid night’s rest back in Chicago, then caught up with Maine on its second stop along a three-game-in-five-night road trip to end the regular season. But every D-League game missed is an opportunity missed for Jackson and a professional career still in its infancy.

“I’m just thankful to be where I am and able to continue to grow, and that’s the cool part of it,” he said. “Every time I get to play, where I play well or don’t play well, I can still get better.”

The next challenge

Less than 48 hours after he finished his junior season at Notre Dame, where he led the Irish in scoring (15.8 ppg.) and assists (4.6 apg.), Jackson announced that he would skip his final season of college basketball to chase his professional dreams. That announcement was one year ago Wednesday.

“That’s crazy,” Jackson said when reminded of the anniversary.

Touted as a likely first-round selection in June’s NBA draft, the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Jackson slipped to the middle of the second. He fell to Boston, a team already heavy on guards and ready to win now. Those factors would allow Jackson time to learn about life in the league, but also meant that he’d learn a good chunk of it in Maine.

Jackson has made the 107-mile trip between Boston and Portland so often that he no longer needs a GPS. One of 20 current NBA players on assignment in the D League, he’s been back and forth 11 times.

He has played five games for the Celtics, the last Feb. 11 at Toronto when he played 11 seconds. He’s scored 10 points with four rebounds and three assists in 17 total minutes. Following Tuesday’s contest, Jackson had appeared in 30 games with the Red Claws. He’s averaging 15.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 33.3 minutes. He scored a season-high 30 points on New Year’s Eve. He grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds earlier this week and had a personal-best 12 assists earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of back and forth,” he said. “But when I go to Boston, I try to stay ready in case I’m ever needed. I use that time to get better when I come play (in Maine).”

Jackson feels his game getting better. He understands how to run pick-and-roll and defend it. Guards at this level are often left on an island as opposed to college, where help often comes. He knows how to better find his shots, knows how to get guys in the flow. He understands the game. Sees it clearer. And cleaner, without the clutter.

“Physically, he’s got a lot of tools,” said Maine coach Scott Morrison. “With many young players, it’s about learning how to play at this high a level and also slow down. That was probably his biggest challenge.

“He’s been good.”

Seldom is there a film session – and they watch a lot of film in the D League – where Jackson doesn’t inquire about something. What did he do right here? Wrong there? What should have his read been on this fast break? That halfcourt set?

He seeks feedback on everything.

“He knows how to act like a professional, which is a big step for a lot of these guys,” Morrison said. “You can tell he’s a mature guy.

“It’s a hard game and a hard league to crack, but he has the ability to do it if he keeps going.”

And that’s key – for HIM to keep going. In college, if Jackson needed help with his game, an Irish assistant coach could get him in the gym after hours and work on A, B or C. In the pros, if Jackson wants to be better, it’s on him. All of it. Even on days off, there really are none. Not when there are dozens of guys scrambling for his roster spot. In Maine. In Boston.

“You’re supposed to develop and set the building blocks for yourself,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, the standard is really high, but to go above and beyond the standard, you’ve got to put in extra work.

“You have to go above and beyond to be great.”

Living the life

Jackson signed a four-year deal with the Celtics worth $5.5 million. Boston holds his fourth-year option. While the average salary for a second-round pick is $543,471, Jackson, selected 45th overall, is making $1.45 million this season. That’s similar to the No. 23 pick of the first round. Though it’s a team-friendly deal (the salary decreases the final three years and ranks 13th on the Celtics’ 15-man roster), it’s also more money than Jackson ever dreamed of having.

In many ways, he lives like he doesn’t.

“I’m still super cheap,” he said. “I’m trying to get a discount on everything and my teammates all make fun of me. I live like a college student.”

Jackson has an apparel/shoe deal with Under Armour and is a spokesman for AdvoCare. As a member of the Celtics, doing a promotional deal here or there may get him a free flat-screen television or a chance to see a Boston Bruins hockey game.

“There’s tons of opportunities at this level,” he said.

Jackson has allowed himself one big-ticket purchase – a car. It had to be an SUV to get him through the New England winter. A Jeep Grand Cherokee did the trick.

“It was big-time during the winter,” he said. “I was driving the same speed around town as I was in the summer.”

Jackson lives just outside of Boston in Cambridge. He shares a place with former Marian High School classmate Michael Whitfield, whose family took Jackson into foster care when he was younger. Whitfield moved in over Christmas break. He’s finishing his final semester of undergraduate work at Ball State online.

“It’s fun having him around to experience everything and learn about life as well,” Jackson said. “It’s great to have my brother there.”

Jackson’s dog – a Neapolitan Mastiff named Obi - remains at the Whitfield home in Mishawaka. Just a puppy by Jackson’s side on draft night, Obi now weighs 145 pounds.

“He’s huge,” Jackson said.

Jackson has learned to navigate Boston’s complicated streets – some go this way, others that way, a few just end – well enough to get from his home to TD Garden and out to suburban Waltham, home of the Celtics’ practice facility. He knows the quickest route to a nearby movie theater, where he spends a lot of time, and to one of his favorite restaurants, Noodles & Company, where he eats a lot of meals.

When Jackson is up in Portland, a hotel is home.

When Jackson turned pro, he talked of one day buying his mother a house. That plan is on hold.

“I realize now that there’s a lot that goes into that,” he said. “That’s still one of my goals. I still need to accomplish a lot of them.”

Something to prove

Despite a lack of sleep, Jackson scored 11 points with three rebounds and four assists in a 107-95 loss Tuesday. He was solid for stretches, then simply ran out of gas in the second half. McCallum, a former second-round NBA pick who has played in 103 NBA games with three teams, finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in 33 minutes. There were times when Jackson held his own against the veteran guard, other times when McCallum’s experience got the best of him.

“He’s a good player, man,” said McCallum, who is represented by the same agency, Priority Sports, as Jackson. “He’s a strong point guard. He’ll be around the league a long time.”

Whether that happens in Boston is to be determined. The Celtics’ top two guards – Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas – are up for possible maximum contract extensions come fall. Both can become unrestricted free agents after next season. There might not be enough money for both, especially with the Celtics in position for a top-five pick in June. They could take another guard, say UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky or Washington’s Markelle Fultz. That would further shuffle Jackson down the depth chart.

That’s why his work in the D League is so important.

“When you’re the fourth guard on an NBA roster and there’s limited minutes for you, you’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity,” McCallum said. “There are 29 other teams keeping an eye on you here.

“Demetrius has all the intangibles to be a good point guard in the NBA. It’s just all about opportunity, and a guy like that will excel when he gets that opportunity.”

On the grind

Opportunity continued to knock for Jackson this week. Following the matinee in Michigan, Jackson and his teammates headed back to a nearby hotel to rest, then on to the airport for a couple more commercial flights. Their destination was Greensboro, N.C. Back in the fall with the Celtics, Jackson played an NBA exhibition game against Charlotte in Greensboro Coliseum, where he helped Notre Dame win an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 2015.

Reminders of his college days are everywhere. When Jackson was with the Celtics during preseason, they played an exhibition at Barclays Center, the arena where he helped Notre Dame win two NCAA tournament games last March. They played the Sixers in Wells Fargo Center, the arena in South Philadelphia where Jackson’s college career concluded last Easter. The Celtics used the same locker room in both buildings as Jackson did with the Irish. In Washington, Jackson met up with former Irish assistant Anthony Solomon, who spent this past season with Georgetown.

The plan is for Jackson to finish out the regular season – it ends Saturday in the Chicago suburbs – with Maine, then remain with the club throughout any possible playoffs. He and Mickey, who are Nos. 14 and 15 on a Celtics roster than can dress only 13 for games – are scheduled to rejoin the parent club for its playoff push.

Once the NBA season ends, Jackson hopes to return home to Michiana for a few days with family and friends before summer league starts in early July. Then it’s back on the grind, be it in Boston, Portland or points elsewhere.

Jackson has come a long way in a short time, but also knows there’s also a ways to go.

“I really didn’t have that many expectations about the NBA because I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “But that’s been the thing for me my whole life – just kind of going into something blindly and learning.

“Basketball is your life. I just try and bring it every day.”

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