John Niyo: For Pistons' Josh Jackson, home is where the hope is

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John Niyo, The Detroit News
·9 min read
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Feb. 23—Josh Jackson had options last fall in free agency. His agent, B.J. Armstrong, was gauging interest from a handful of teams as the former top-five pick looked for a new NBA home: Cleveland, Charlotte, Dallas and the New York Knicks were among them.

But the destination that always made the most sense was the one he'd ultimately settle on. Detroit raised Jackson, after all, so why wouldn't it embrace him now?

"Coming home, a lot of people make it out like it could be a problem," said Jackson, who won a state championship at Detroit Consortium in 2014 before embarking on a brief basketball odyssey that he hopes will come full-circle here in the city where he grew up. "But most of my family's here, and I feel like I have a lot of good people in my corner and everybody I have around me wants to see me succeed. ... It's been great. It's just been a load off."

And that's important, because fair or not, the perception around the league was that Jackson was bringing some baggage with him.

He already has taken a few detours in his young NBA career after being drafted fourth overall in the 2017 draft by the Phoenix Suns. Fresh off a one-and-done star turn at Kansas, the athletic, 6-foot-8 wing earned second-team All-Rookie honors in his debut with the Suns. But he also made headlines for his on-court transgressions and his off-court issues, including an arrest at a music festival in Miami and a bitter custody battle with the mother of his young daughter in Phoenix that's still ongoing.

That's part of what led the Suns to trade Jackson prior to last season, shipping him to Memphis only 24 months after celebrating his arrival. And it's also why last winter he was back to flying commercial with the G League's Memphis Hustle — playing home games in Southaven, Miss., just down the road from Graceland — in what amounted to a three-month proving ground the Grizzlies set up for him "to restore his reputation on and off the court."

"The way I approached was I just came out and had fun with it," Jackson said. "I could've moped around about it or whatever. But I was still playing basketball, I was still making NBA money, so it was like what did I really have to be (mad) about? Nothing. ... Yeah, I was treated like a kid when I was there. Did I think that needed to happen? No. Did I understand it? Sort of. But again, it was just something I had to do, and I did it."

And in the end, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver says, "I think the Memphis experience was pretty good for him, quite honestly. It showed that he was willing to put his best foot forward and head in the right direction to resurrecting his career."

Yet before taking this next leap of faith last November, both sides needed to hear where the other stood. Weaver, the new GM intent on building a winning culture in Detroit, wanted to know if Jackson was ready for a challenge — and to be challenged on a daily basis — while the former lottery pick sought some assurances of his own.

"But I just felt like I could trust him," Jackson said. "I felt like he really, really believed in me. And it's been nothing but that since I got here. ...

"I mean, I just wanted to be in a place where I could play. You've got to be out there and be allowed to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And that's what I think I've been allowed to do here."

Senior member

Jackson just turned 24, but he realized when he hit the practice court last week that he's the oldest player on the Pistons' second unit. ("I'm like, 'OK, I guess I'm a vet now,'" he laughed.) And as his role has expanded the past few weeks with the trade of Derrick Rose and the pending departure of Blake Griffin, so has his production.

Stats:Josh Jackson's 2021, career stats

He's averaging 16.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists with a true shooting percentage of 55.4 over a 10-game span this month. Turnovers are still an issue, and there have been some erratic nights — at Phoenix and at Chicago — even in that stretch. Sunday night in Orlando, Jackson finished with his first double-double since April 2019, yet he shot 7-for-23 from the field.

"I love his aggression, his toughness," Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. "But I stay on him. I coach him as hard as anybody, watch film with him on his mistakes. ... He is not a finished product, by any means. But he's playing with a pure heart."

And the way Weaver sees it, he's playing in the right environment now, with a coach in Casey whose "stable, consistent personality" and emphasis on fundamentals "was everything Josh needed."

It's not just that Jackson played for four different head coaches in his first three NBA seasons. Or five, if you include the G League stint. If you go all the way back to the start of high school, Jackson has played for the same coach in consecutive years just once — his two seasons at Prolific Prep in Napa.

"There's so many things that go into this game and this league that people just don't understand," Jackson said. "Every time that I've played for a new coach, I've felt like that coach really didn't know me as a player — my strengths, my weaknesses. It was kind of just figured out over time, and if you don't have that much time to gain that trust ..."

Well, that clearly was part of the thinking with Jackson signing a two-year deal (worth $9.77 million) in Detroit, where the allure of playing for the Pistons actually goes back to his childhood, when his parents used to take him to games at the Palace during the team's "Goin' to Work" era. His late stepfather, Clarence Jones, even had a connection on the Pistons' training staff who helped Jackson land ballboy duties and locker-room access for some games.

Laces of legends

He still has some of the shoes that players gave him as souvenirs, including Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Lindsey Hunter and Tayshaun Prince, who along with Ben Wallace was Jackson's favorite player on the 2004 championship team. (He still has some of those fake Afro wigs fans wore to games in honor of Wallace, too.)

Oh, and another memory from his youth. Jackson and his folks were in the stands the night of the "Malice at the Palace" between the Pistons and Pacers in November 2004. And he can admit now to being an active participant — "just a little bit," he laughs — as a 7-year-old tossing a water bottle as the brawl spilled into the stands.

"What kid doesn't want to see his hometown NBA team win, right?" Jackson said. "Being able to go to those games. seeing what a playoff game was like, just the atmosphere, it made me want it so much more as a young guy."

It's also part of what fuels him now, he says. If he got a bit lost in the desert as a 20-year-old rookie, he's feeling more grounded here where he grew up.

His mom, Apples Jones, who helped shepherd him through a prep career that led him to California and a college recruitment that ultimately left Michigan State at the altar, still lives in Detroit. So does his grandmother, who drops by to cook occasionally, along with his aunts and uncles and cousins. Jackson's sixth-grade teacher was over last week helping him unpack boxes and move furniture in his new place.

"I've gotten to see family that I haven't seen in six or seven years," Jackson said. "I've gotten a chance to reconnect with friends I haven't seen in 10-plus years. So it's been great, having them in my corner and supporting me. I'm doing the right things and I've got people who ... sometimes you need a little pat on the back, you know?"

And then you need to give back, which is something else Jackson seems intent on doing here in his hometown, whether it's refurbishing the basketball court he grew up playing on at Erma Henderson Park in Detroit or donating Christmas toys for kids at the New Way Christian Center without any fanfare.

"That's one of the things that I wanted to do coming home," Jackson said. "I had guys that I looked up to when I was younger, that inspired me to work hard and get to where I am today. ... So I just want to give kids that opportunity and that feeling that somebody's there for them, too."

As for this opportunity he's got with a rebuilding Pistons franchise, time will tell what becomes of it.

"I mean, it's up to him," Weaver said. "Josh has all the physical tools to become an elite two-way player in this league, and we're pushing him every day to become that player."

Jackson, for his part, realizes it'll take some time to get there.

"But slowly I feel like I've been figuring it out," he said. "And I know this organization saw that potential in me and believed in me that they could bring it out."

If they can, and if he does, maybe this franchise could get back to the kind of winning Jackson remembers from his childhood, too.

"Man, it'd be amazing," he said. "That's something that everyone wants to do in this league, to win a championship. But to be able to do it in your hometown and the city that you grew up in ... it doesn't get any better than that."

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo