There were two words repeatedly ringing in Frank Jackson’s head during the past month.
“Stay ready,” Jackson said he told himself. “That’s all I could think about.”
The mantra makes sense, considering the turbulent entrance the New Orleans Pelicans’ rookie guard faced at the onset of his NBA career. Since being selected as the opening pick of the second round in the 2017 Draft, he’s faced a yearlong foot injury required three surgeries, forcing him to take a proverbial redshirt season, and is trying to elbow his way into the rotation for a playoff contender.
“I just have to keep preparing like they’ll need me at any moment and I think that goes a long way toward taking advantage of the time when it comes open,” Jackson said. “So, I really was staying ready.”
And he proved it.
After playing three combined minutes over six games, Jackson re-entered the rotation this weekend and earned praise from Pelicans’ coaches and veterans alike, who were especially complimentary following his 12-point outing in Monday’s 140-126 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
Jackson showed off his ability to get to the rim, finishing an and-1 in traffic, just seconds before displaying his speed in the open court, racing from end-to-end to turn a steal into a layup.
“It’s exciting to see somebody so young to come out and play meaningful minutes,” Jrue Holiday said. “It’s especially nice to see him hold his own against DeMar (DeRozan) and (Marco) Belinelli who are really good players for the Spurs. I’m really excited and I can see his confidence, and the confidence from the coaches grow every day. So, it’s great for us.”
It’s also badly needed.
Thrusting Jackson back onto the court wasn’t an act of charity from coach Alvin Gentry, it was a necessity. New Orleans’ guard depth was battered when Elfrid Payton broke his left pinky finger just minutes after returning from a nine-game absence caused by spraining his left ankle.
Now, with Payton sidelined for six more weeks, the Pelicans need a solution in the backcourt.
They’d prefer Jackson to be the answer. While the 20-year old guard performed better as an off guard this preseason, making him an imperfect replacement for Payton, Jackson’s athletic burst, speed, quickness and perimeter shooting can add a helpful dynamic to the Pelicans’ thin bench.
After trying out Tim Frazier in that position for a handful of games, Gentry swapped their spots last weekend and said he wants to keep Jackson in the role going forward, even if it requires going through some rookie growing pains to do so.
“The only way he’s ever going to learn is he has to be in those situations actually playing out on the floor,” Gentry said. “The great thing about him is he’s not a guy who is making the same mistakes. So, to me it’s telling me he’s learning and doing the right thing.
“It’s going to take a little while, but I think he’s had some really good moments and especially some good moments defensively, which is what we really need.”
He credits some of those defensive flashes to Holiday, who has mentored Jackson over the past year. The pair trained together this offseason at Holiday’s California home, working alongside trainer Mike Guevara to improve balance, explosiveness and strength.
It’s paying off.
“It’s awesome,” Jackson said. “I look at him as my role model and a big brother. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s smart and the best two-way player in the league, so I try to stay as close to him as I can to feed off his energy and wisdom.”
It’s still unknown whether Jackson can maintain his spot in the rotation, particularly if the Pelicans make a trade to add a more experienced ball-handler. But, for now, Jackson is taking the necessary steps to carve out his place and become a reliable weapon off of the bench.
“He works on his craft day in and day out,” Davis said. “He plays pickup and he works out with Jrue and he watches film. He’s always ready for when he’s called. His performance shows it. And it’s big for our rotation to have another guy so some other guys can rest.”