CHICAGO - Rick Jackson isn't used to the position he now finds himself in as he tries to impress coaches and general managers at the NBA Combine in the Windy City. At Neumann-Goretti and then Syracuse, Jackson was a known commodity, someone who could be counted on for points and rebounds and physicality, someone who would improve on his game every day.
The professional game, however, is a whole different animal, and Jackson knows that to be able to play in the world's best league, he must do even more than he did for coach Carl Arrigale at N-G and for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. And he's OK with it.
"I think teams are looking at me to see if I can play more face-up offense, hit the midrange jumpers, things like that," said Jackson, who measured in at 6-9 3/4 with his shoes on and 242 pounds with a 7-2 wing span and 8.3 percent body fat. "But they don't really talk to me about that, though. They talk to me about the stuff that I do best, which is rebound, play tough defense, be tough on the court."
He's done all that pretty much since he was inserted into N-G's starting lineup as a gangly sophomore. It culminated in his being named the Big East's defensive player of the year this past season after accumulating 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. He also averaged 13.1 points and shot an impressive 58.8 percent from the floor.
But his offense won't get Jackson a spot on a team; it will be everything else he does that will write his ticket to the NBA.
Patience certainly isn't a virtue that many NBA bigwigs possess, not in this win-now world. But Arrigale knows that if a team takes a chance with Jackson, it will get a player who he not only believes can step in right know and play well defensively, but who will improve his game continuously.
"I think he could be a great defensive rebounder and shot blocker right now," said Arrigale, who won two straight Catholic League titles with Jackson and point guard Scoop Jardine among his starters before both moved on to Syracuse. "And his offense will improve. He improved every year in high school and every year in college. He's one of those guys who will try harder if he's told he can't do something. He was always big and gangly, but he's got that fight in him. He's just grown up a lot. This is something he wants. And when Rick wants something, he is driven to get it. He won't stop working until he gets it."
Before his sophomore season at Neumann-Goretti, Jackson worked hard on his game, improved himself enough to unseat a returning senior starter. He quickly became the go-to guy Arrigale needed down low. By the time Jackson was a senior, it was becoming nearly impossible for anyone to stop him, partly because of his size and strength, mostly because of his mental toughness and his relentless desire to be better.
"I never had anybody who took the beating that he took when he was a senior," Arrigale said. "If anyone had the right to hit somebody, it was him. He wasn't as strong then as he is now. He was always the biggest player on the floor and he got beat up, but he just kept taking in and always kept going. Now he's really put together, he's defined. He's always put in the extra work after practice. He has that Philly toughness. He's always had it."
He'll need it now with his future balancing in the hands of coaches and general managers.
"I have to be the guy that is going to dive after balls, get to all the loose balls on the court, do all the little things that can help a team win," Jackson said. "And that's OK. That's not a real big adjustment for me. I'm always open to getting better, making my game better. I enjoy working on things that I usually don't work on. It's tough at first, but once you get used to it and get in the repetitions, no matter what it is, I'm confident that I can get used to those things."
What he can't get used to is the fact that he will play ball without Jardine for the first time since sixth grade.
"It is strange," said Jackson, who will turn 22 on Thursday. "Usually, it's just me and him hanging around. Now I feel like a loner, just traveling around and trying to play some ball and try to make a name for myself."
Sitting through the workouts for the Sixers were coach Doug Collins, assistant coach Brian James, president Rod Thorn, general manager Ed Stefanski, assistant GM Tony DiLeo and player personnel director Courtney Witte . . . Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette, who was measured at only 6 feet, three-quarter inches without shoes (but who plays without shoes?), was the most sought after player by the media. He also seemed the most comfortable talking to them . . . Few people seemed to understand the decision by Duke's Kyrie Irving not to participate in any oncourt drills, opting only to go through the physicals. Irving, projected by most to be the top pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in next month's draft, said the injured toe that limited him to only 11 games this past season was 100 percent healed. Perhaps Irving was afraid to get out on the court because he wasn't in all that great shape. The 6-3 point guard had one of the highest body fat numbers of the 54 players gathered, at 10.2 percent. *
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