BOISE — Ask Pierre Jackson about leading the NBA D-League in scoring. He bristles.
Through Monday, he was scoring more than any NBA or D-League player, hovering around 30 points per game. L.A. D-Fenders guard and former Cavaliers draft bust Manny Harris overtook him with his second 40-point performance in less than a week. The first came against Jackson’s Stampede Friday night when the two occasionally guarded each other — a super-efficient 49 points.
Falling to second place was a relief for the 5-foot-9 shooting guard. That’s a first.
Jackson tweeted late Monday night: “About time someone passed me on that scoring leader nonsense he can have it ....”
Jackson’s per game statistics are gaudy, but his percentages are modest. Those ridiculous scoring numbers draw attention to his middling efficiency. His shooting percentage is a few ticks above average and his assist to turnover ratio isn’t great for a guy who handles the ball as much as Jackson does (four turnovers to five assists per game).
The thought process of his critics is simple: it’s not about how much you score, it’s how many shots or possessions it takes to score.
The rise in popularity of “advanced metrics” hasn’t just inflated the heads of box score geeks, many of whom believe their knowledge of the game surpasses that of NBA coaches despite never playing basketball, and in some cases, ever watching a game. Those metrics are used by NBA front offices, and have steadily grown greater influence in decision making about personnel, even as more advanced methods, like camera tracking systems used to calculate the physics of player movement, could possibly contradict those statistical models’ basic premises — making them old and antiquated, like many think the points per game stat is today.
To some of these people, Jackson’s numbers envelop him into neat and tidy stereotypes: volume shooter, single-minded.
Jackson doesn’t want to be known as just a scorer. He’s done too much winning to garner a reputation with a negative connotation.
“At Baylor, I had to pass the ball and score,” Jackson said. “I have a point guard beside me now (Dee Bost, who is averaging 8.3 assists per game), I don’t have a problem at all. I led in assists and scoring in college. Right now on this team one of my major roles is scoring. So I take that role.”
His coach Mike Peck agrees.
“I want to win,” said Peck, whose employer doesn’t hold Jackson’s rights and doesn’t directly benefit from developing the star. ”Pierre Jackson needs to be on the floor for us. Guys who can get baskets like he can … ”
Peck used to coach against Jackson (Desert Pines) in Las Vegas when he was the head man at Findlay College Prep, a nationally prominent program in Henderson, Nev.
“I had Avery Bradley (who is now a defensive ace for the Boston Celtics) and Pierre scored 34 against us,” Peck said. “He was a one-man show. I knew right there, he’s the real deal. He could score, quick, he could handle. Look, he’s won a national championship at CSI, won an NIT at Baylor. He wins. He has a chip on his shoulder. He tries to prove it at every level.”
Jackson is a strong engine with a medium gear ratio in a tiny sports car — he reaches a top speed only a few guards in the NBA have, and he reaches it as fast as any of them. While he pulled out of the NBA combine because of illness — it’s clear his numbers would have wowed — he easily scoots by bigger defenders without seeming to exert himself.
But there are questions about how many miles he gets to the gallon. While he plays over 40 minutes a game, some wonder how much he leaves in the tank.
“He’s one of those guys that have a switch,” Peck said. “I have had this conversation with him, I think it comes so easy for him because he is so quick and so good with the ball, his coordination skill set and ability to score, it comes easy for him so at times, it looks like he is coasting. I don’t know if he is or not, that might be some of his downfall.
“I want to see him go harder every minute. I think it comes easy and when it comes easy, he has a gear that a lot of guys wish they had.”
Jackson clanks miss after miss in Friday’s shoot-around. He airballs one. He shows ideal balance and elevation on his jumper, but his right elbow bows out more than most pure shooters. He’s super streaky.
His pre-game slump carries into the start of the game. The D-Fenders had already beaten the Stampede twice, thanks in large part to opening up big leads. Friday night, Idaho turns the ball over four times in its first five possessions. Basic passes fly errant. Some are ill-conceived. The Stampede fall into an 11-0 hole, one they’d never dig themselves out of.
“It’s not effort, it’s the start of games,” Jackson said after the 133-124 loss.” We have spurts, but we have to start the game like that.”
Jackson plays in spurts, too. He takes 28 shots to get his 28 points.
“Shots I usually make.” Jackson said afterward.
He forces a few passes, blows a transition opportunity by going behind his back. He dazzles, splitting a double team and double-pumping a left-handed layup. These are plays no one else on the court is capable of making.
He has eight assists, and could have reached double-digits had his teammates shot a higher percentage on his passes. Impressive: Jackson played most of the game off the ball.
When he gets it, something exciting happens.
“It is an open offense here,” Jackson said. “Whatever the defense gives me, I try to take it.”
Jackson can do everything on offense — at a high level — that an NBA team would want out of a small guard.
But there are plenty of things they wished he wouldn’t — his decision making can be improved.
As a Swiss-Army knife, sometimes Jackson tries to cut open the defense with tweezers when he has better options.
Jackson was in the 20th percentile shooting off the dribble at Baylor according to DraftExpress.com, who issued a scouting report that raved about his ability to spot-up and knock shots down off screens. Combined with his elite-level penetration and finishing skills, it’s no wonder he generated so much interest from teams at the NBADL Showcase game, where he won MVP.
“No one is going to call him up to play 24-34 minutes (right away),” Peck said. “It’s, ‘can he spell for three to four minutes and just come in with some zip and change the pace of a game and the look of a game.’”
But it’s the other part of Jackson’s scouting report that he’s trying to beat. Some of it he simply cannot change.
According to Draftexpress.com, Jackson 7-foot-6 standing reach “would be the smallest of any prospect in our historical database to ever play in the NBA.”
“Not a lot of people are saying what I can’t do, but it’s that I’m small and defensively (I have to) guard bigger players,” Jackson said. “It’s basketball, there are going to be mismatches. Just like they say I can’t guard those guys, those guys aren’t going to be able to guard me either. I just want to show defensively and that I’m a pretty good leader.”
But there are things he can change. As the league bends towards smaller, quicker players and faster pace — from rule changes to increased emphasis on maximizing offensive efficiency over rebounding – there is a greater need for a player with Jackson’s ability. Like diminutive Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, the Kings’ Isaiah Thomas, all the way back in time to Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues — starting and playing 30 minutes at a high level is in the realm of possibility.
But there are things he has to change.
“I know he is spending a lot of energy on the offensive end of the floor, but to establish the same effort defensively,” Peck said. “That Nate Robinson mentality; Nate is explosive offensively, he can turn and get six to nine points in a flurry, but he will come down and get after it defensively. Not to say Pierre doesn’t, but to raise his play to a level that would raise eyebrows. This is a no-brainier, we have to do this.”
“We keep telling him,” Peck said. “It’s establishing a level of consistency at this level, don’t be a one hit wonder, you have to establish it. They have to see it over 10-15 games, ‘This is a blue chip stock, not something that fluctuates with the wind.’ The readiness and urgency, value, respect and embrace the process. Treat practices like games. How is he on Tuesday? They are going to ask that. If you came every day busting your tail, ‘This guy works his tail off.’”
Friday, Jackson floats most of the game on defense. He loses sight of the man he’s guarding, drifting from his responsibilities. He’s upright most of the time. In spurts, he’ll get into a crouched stance and try to mirror the ball-handler — spurts. After missing shots on offense, Jackson will shake his head and talk to himself. He’s thinking about offense while playing defense.
Jackson knows what he needs to do — it’s the final step. But playing more than 40 minutes a game in an open and fast-paced offense where he needs to produce more points for his team than anyone else — NBA or D-league — in order to win, isn’t an ideal situation to develop better defensive habits.
“They want to see me defensively being more of a pest, because my role will be different,” Jackson said. “Here I’ve been trying to show what else I can do. I love playing a lot of minutes, but that can kind of wear down on you trying to play full-court defense and score the ball.”
But that’s not the Stampede’s problem. Why would they want to spend their resources helping Jackson reach his potential so he can play for another organization, one in the same conference as the parent club Portland Trail Blazers?
Jackson is close to home, and old stomping grounds. His booster parents came to watch him last weekend.
“Seeing them in gold and black vests from CSI,” Jackson said. “They bought me cookies like they used to at CSI. Seeing them still support me. They follow me wherever I go. They gave me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings.”
He gets to see his girlfriend and sick grandmother.
It’s the best of a bad situation. But Jackson’s hoop dreams can only be fulfilled elsewhere.