Noie: Former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson gets second NBA chance in Houston

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Having spent the previous 12 months learning about life as a professional basketball player, former Marian High School and Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson discovered in mid-July that there’s another side to the NBA game.

A serious side. A darker side.

The business side.

One night in July, Jackson was working as the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics’ summer league squad in Las Vegas. He was playing alongside Jaylen Brown, the team’s No. 3 pick in last year’s draft, and Jason Tatum, the team’s No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. He was getting his shots and getting the ball to teammates in their sweet spots. He was getting more comfortable in his second NBA summer run.

In the four games that Jackson played — and started — he averaged 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals in 25.5 minutes. The Celtics were 4-0 and were chasing a summer league championship.

The next night, Jackson was on a plane back to Boston. He eventually would pack up his Cambridge apartment, load up his SUV and begin the long and sometimes lonely drive back home to Mishawaka.

For the first time in his basketball life, Jackson was essentially told that there was no spot for him on a team’s roster.

Sort of.

The Celtics still believed in him as a player. Still wanted to make it work for another season. Still wanted to see how much further he could grow his game. But when it came time to sign prized free agent swingman Gordon Hayward, they needed to make a plethora of roster moves to free up salary space.

Boston had to shed the contracts of six players, including Jackson’s four-year, $5.5 million deal that he signed after being the 45th overall pick of the 2016 draft. If Jackson was still on the roster on July 15, he would have been guaranteed $1.38 million for the 2017-18 season.

Jackson was released on July 14.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

“After being around the business of basketball and understanding how the business works, it was definitely disappointing and frustrating, especially because of the growth I feel like I made,” Jackson said Saturday afternoon after spending a couple hours scrimmaging and working out with current and future members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team at Purcell Pavilion. “It’s definitely tough and definitely humbling because not a lot of people understand how the NBA works. All they see is the part that you got cut and think you can’t play.

"They don’t see the stuff that goes into it.”

It stung Jackson to be released. Still does. The Celtics eventually signed two other point guards. That included rookie Jabari Bird, a teammate of Jackson’s on the 2013 McDonald’s All-American team.

“You just have to use it as motivation to be better,” said Jackson, who turned 23 last week. “I just try to look at the positives of the situation.”

Like the fact that he was member of the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. That he learned from dynamic guard Isaiah Thomas, who eventually was traded to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. That he spent his rookie season maturing. On the court. Off the court.

That he was something he had always dreamed of being. A pro.

“It was fun,” he said. “I really got to develop.”

Another opportunity

Jackson showed enough in two summer leagues and a season in the NBA’s Development League — now the Gatorade League — for at least one other NBA team to take serious notice.

Jackson landed in late July with the Houston Rockets. Everything that Jackson and his agent, former Irish walk-on guard Kieran Piller were looking for, the Rockets offered. Good fit. Style of play. A possibility at playing time. Veteran team. Good organization. The chance to work behind one of the game’s best in Chris Paul.

“I’m definitely grateful,” said Jackson, who sported red and white — Rockets colors — Under Armour sneakers on Saturday. “I’m rolling into the next team really motivated to just attack another opportunity.”

As was the case in Boston, Jackson is one of four point guards in Houston. Fellow second-year guards Tim Quarterman and Isaiah Taylor have never played in more than 16 NBA games. A perennial All-Star, Paul is 32 years old and entering his 13th season. He’s played in all 82 games only once in his career. He missed 14 last season with a torn ligament in his right thumb.

Much like he did with the Celtics last season, Jackson is expected to spend this season in the G League. Instead of a quick trip from Boston and its G-League affiliate in Portland, Maine, Jackson's hoops home will be 360 miles away from Houston in Hidalgo, Texas as a member of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Jackson signed one of the NBA's new two-way contracts. Those deals allow players to spend the majority of time in the G League. They can join the parent club due to illness or injury or ineffectiveness. The NBA calendar runs 170 days. Two-way deals allow two players from each team — roster spots 16 and 17 — to be with NBA teams for up to 45 days. There they would earn the league minimum ($815,615). The remaining 125 days are spent in the G League, where players earn $75,000.

Jackson earned $1.45 million last season.

Former Irish power forward Jack Cooley has a similar two-way contract with the Sacramento Kings.

NBA training camps begin Sept. 26.

Jackson should see plenty of playing time with the Vipers. He also may bounce back and forth the way he did last year, when Jackson made at least a dozen trips between Boston and Portland.

Portland and Hidalgo are a long way from Boston and Houston and the NBA, yet close enough.

“I’ve been to some places that I never thought I’d see,” Jackson said. “I guess that’s a blessing as well.”

Remaining at the NBA level was the only playing option that Jackson wanted to pursue. Despite his solid summer play, he continued to struggle against size, particularly at the rim. That wouldn’t be an issue in Europe, where Jackson’s build (6 feet, 201 pounds) and leaping ability would allow him to better finish in traffic.

The looks at the rim that are swatted in the NBA likely become dunks overseas. But Europe, at least for now, is not an option. Even now as another rookie class is poised to make its mark and looks to push the previous class out of the way in proving they can play. A year ago, Jackson was part of a similar movement. The next wave of can’t-miss guys.

A year later, he’s fighting to stick. With Houston. With Rio Grande Valley.

“I’ve been able to play in summer league and been around (NBA) guys,” Jackson said. “If I can play, I can play. The day that I don’t have a contract in the NBA is the day I’ll consider going overseas.”

Jackson believed his game was NBA caliber when he left Notre Dame with a year of eligibility in his back pocket. Believed it last year when he was in the G League. Believed it when he was released by the Celtics.

Still believes it.

The disappointment of yesterday fuels the determination for tomorrow.

“You’ve got to keep moving forward; you can’t take a step back,” Jackson said. “I’ve been down before and I’ve always come back.”

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI