Noie: Former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson at a basketball career crossroads

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

One return phone call said it all.

Said more than the words that follow on these printed pages. Said more than former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson could in the 29 minutes he spent on the phone Thursday afternoon. Said a lot about how Jackson has grown since he left college a year early in the spring of 2016.

Reached late Thursday morning, Jackson sounded like someone with a lot on his mind. And on his to-do list. He could talk about the latest direction his basketball career will take him, but that time wasn’t the best time. He promised to call later in the day.

Well, he promised that he’d try.

Historically, that’s code for yeah, not happening. Maybe later. A lot later. Maybe just not at all. Sometimes that happens. Interviews fall through. Opportunities go dark.

Less than 90 minutes after that promise to try, Jackson tried. He returned the call. It was a better time for him to talk. To reflect. To open doors about himself that had often been closed. He did it all.

Rather than grumbling his way through the conversation, he was engaging, entertaining and enlightening.

“If I give you my word that I’m going to call, I’m going to call,” Jackson said. “This is the new me. I’m definitely more mature.

“I’m a different person than I used to be.”

Different than the one we last saw in a Notre Dame uniform during the 2015-16 season, the one who led the Irish in scoring (15.8) and assists (4.7) while driving coach Mike Brey’s program to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. Jackson had a decision after that season, one that really wasn’t one.

With his professional stock maxed out — at one point, he was a projected Top 20 pick in that summer’s NBA draft — Jackson skipped his senior year. He had to chase his professional dreams. But another reason Jackson left early was that he had to get South Bend and all that he’d ever known behind him. At least, for a while.

He had to learn about the world outside the 574 bubble. How it worked. How you handled yourself. How you become a professional on and off a basketball court. He’d been around here for too long — born in South Bend, raised in Mishawaka, high school at Marian, college at Notre Dame — that he knew less than nothing about life outside these walls.

“It was time to get him out in the world,” Brey said Friday. “He’s become very worldly and has grown getting away from here.”

A big step

How the 25-year-old Jackson has grown is evident in his latest career decision. For the longest time, after being a second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 2016, Jackson believed there was only one route for him in professional basketball. He’d only play in the United States. If he could earn an NBA roster spot, that was good. If not, he’d go grow his game in the NBA G League.

It never worked with the Celtics, who signed him to a four-year, $5.5 million guaranteed contract. It didn’t work with the Houston Rockets or the Philadelphia 76ers. It didn’t work out in a three-week side trip to China, where he never even played. It didn’t work out last fall when he was the final roster cut of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jackson bounced around G League while holding out his hoops hope. Last season was cut short in December by a left foot injury that had him back in Michiana for long winter stretches. Now healthy, Jackson has come to a career crossroads. If he wants to play professionally, he’d have to grab his passport and go someplace he’s never gone to play. He’d have to go to Europe.

Jackson recently agreed to terms with Rytas, a top-level professional team in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“It’s a good opportunity,” he said. “This will give me the platform to be in a position I want to be in — having the ball in my hands and a club having faith in me to do the things that I know I can do — be consistent, be dynamic, be athletic.”

Jackson has shown all that and more since he arrived at Notre Dame a McDonald’s All-American. He’s scored. He’s found guys. He’s led. Trouble is, it never was as consistent as it had to be. It had to be that way for games, not just for glimpses.

At the ultimate level of professional basketball, there’s no easing into anything. You have to hit the ground in a full sprint from the first day. As good as you are one day, you better be better the next. Any sign of slippage, and guys are waiting to grab your spot. Then do.

Windows of opportunity that crack open close quickly. NBA teams don’t have time to wait on anyone. That’s how a former second-round draft pick winds up traveling 4,657 miles from home.

“This is important for him and he knows it,” Brey said. “The clock has ticked on his career. He really knows that it’s time to really make a run and be good because he’s not getting any younger and the train’s moved.”

Jackson is buoyed by the opportunity that awaits in Lithuania. Former Irish teammates Martinas Geben and Steve Vasturia will play together for Zalgiris, about an hour to the northwest on Highway A1 in Kaunas. He’s also worked former teammates V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson hard to join him with Rytas. It could be like 2015 and 2016 all over.

“I told Bonz, we’ll play on this team together and we’ll be in the NBA by the start of the next season,” Jackson said. “If I can do what I need to do, it will work.”

A missed step

Why hasn’t it worked for Jackson in the NBA? At 6-foot-1 (maybe closer to 5-11), and 205 pounds, he’s ridiculously athletic. He’s quick. He’s tough. He’s driven. He’s a survivor.

Four teams have given him looks, then cut him loose. The old Jackson, the one that wouldn’t return a phone call, might run though a litany of excuses about why it hasn’t worked out. The old Jackson would’ve placed blame on somebody else. The coach who didn’t give him an chance. The front-office executive who told him something, then did something else. Jackson won’t go there.

His career is on him.

“There’s times when I’ve had opportunities,” Jackson said, “and I haven’t capitalized the best I could.”

In 26 career NBA games, Jackson has averaged 1.8 points, 0.7 rebounds and 0.7 assists in 5.2 minutes per game. In 70 career G League games, he’s averaged 15.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 31.5 minutes.

It’s like the bright lights and the biggest stage have been too bright and too big. Yet there are other times when he’s done it. With focus. With flair. Might’ve been against the team’s backup point guard, or even the starter. Might have been against a rookie or a veteran. But Jackson’s handed them their lunch.

“Everywhere I’ve gone, someone has gotten their (butt) busted by me,” Jackson said. “Those moments drive me.”

They’ll drive him in Lithuania, for however long he stays. Might be for the year. Might be for more. Jackson believes he still has a long basketball future. He’s not ready to walk away from it yet.

“I don’t know that I’m where I’m supposed to be right now, but I know I’m going to keep working to get there,” he said. “I may never set foot on an NBA court again. The rest of my career may be overseas. I don’t know. But I love the game. I’m going to exhaust this.”

The best for Jackson, may be yet to come. He might get to Lithuania and finally cut it all loose. Play with that purpose and poise and swagger that we’ve seen in snapshots. He’d have had to go halfway around the world where the time difference is seven hours ahead to do it, and that’s fine.

“A lot of times when guys come to those crossroads, that’s when they really deliver,” Brey said. “They know, like, I’ve really got to make this work. The business side of him knows this is it.”

Awaiting final word from Rytas officials that everything’s a go, Jackson will pack up his life in the coming days and hop that flight for Europe. It will give him plenty of time to reflect on where basketball has taken him — he’d never before been on a plane before attending a basketball camp in Charlottesville, Va., the summer before his senior year of high school — and the steps to get there.

For that, he’s thankful. For everybody in his life that’s helped him. Guided him. For all the coaches he’s had who’ve believed in him. For all of his teammates. For fans. Even for the haters. All have helped shape who Jackson is today.

“I’ve taken a lot; I’ve borrowed a lot,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from people who don’t even know how much they’ve helped me. I appreciate all the love through this journey.

“Basketball’s been my joy. It’s changed my life for the better.”

ABOVE: Guard Demetrius Jackson led Notre Dame in scoring, assists and swagger during the 2015-16 season before bypassing his senior season for the NBA.
TOP: Former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson has spent time with four NBA teams over his four seasons. Last fall, he was the final roster cut of the Los Angeles Lakers before spending time with their G League affiliate.