Diamond in the rough: Frank Jackson emerging as real piece of rebuild for the Detroit Pistons

Detroit Bad Boys

A diamond in the rough comes in all shapes, sizes, and contract statuses.

They can be young players from small schools who burst onto the scene out of nowhere. They can be veterans who finally find a situation where everything clicks. They can be a former high school or college star who needs a few years to figure it out.

Admittedly, the concept may not be familiar for Detroit Pistons fans used to their team finding fool’s gold. Since the end of the glory days in 2009, you can count the number of under-the-radar finds who had success with the Pistons on one hand:

  • Will Bynum
  • Reggie Bullock
  • Christian Wood

That’s it.

Makes sense though, right? Bad teams aren’t good at finding good players, that’s, uh, why they’re bad. However, you won’t find a contender out there today who hasn’t gotten lucky and uncovered one of those types:

Those aren’t stars, but they’re dudes you want on your team. They help you win because they know their roles and they do a damn good job filling them. We look at building rosters in a very black and white way: get a superstar, figure out the rest later.

You need the alpha, but there’s still a need for the other guys.

It doesn’t appear to be smoke and mirrors, either. Jackson, 22, looks legit. He’s shaping up to be the kind of diamond in the rough that GM Troy Weaver should look to keep around.

“He has earned every inch and ounce of his playing time,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey told reporters this week. “He is special, and I know he is a keeper. He works every day and keeps his nose to the grind.”

How did we get here? How did he get here?

Jackson has pedigree. He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, then sixth man on a stacked Duke team that you’ve probably forgotten about. After being drafted with the 31st pick in 2017, however, things never clicked with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Maybe they tried too hard to turn the 6-foot-3 player into a true point guard? He spent nearly 70% of his minutes in the spot over two seasons.

Maybe he struggled to adjust to the longer 3-point line in the NBA? He hit 40% from distance on 3.6 attempts per game in college compared to 32% in New Orleans.

Or maybe… he just needed time to figure it out?

Jackson found his niche in Detroit and the mantra is simple — less is more. Casey hasn’t tried to force a square peg into a round hole, as Alvin Gentry did, by making Jackson into a playmaker at the point.

No, he’s playing 61% of his minutes at shooting guard as Casey has prioritized putting him in position to dribble less than ever. No longer is Jackson on the court to create offense and be in a key decision-making position. That’s never been game.

He’s a scorer, always has been, always will be, and the Pistons are letting him focus on two things: get open and let it fly. When it comes to efficiency and location on those shots, look no further than his shot map from last year versus this year:

Jackson is shooting it better from everywhere on the court. He’s found his stroke from downtown, hitting a career-best 41%, and his ability to hit threes from the corners has been his primary calling card. While 55% of his shots are coming from downtown, 41% of those shots are coming from the corners … and he’s hitting 54% on those attempts. That’s pretty good.

Jackson has shown a nice touch inside as well, and when defenders run him off the 3-point line, he is becoming more comfortable driving to the rim. Jackson is converting at a league-average within eight feet, and converts 74% within the restricted area. While the attempts are low, that’s second on the team behind Mason Plumlee, and he’s getting more comfortable with the idea of driving inside. He’s an above-average athlete, good enough to get where he needs to go around the rim. Tightening up his handle this summer can open up more next season.

Jackson’s game-winner against the Cleveland Cavaliers (in b4 y’all boo) was a perfect example of the kind of threat he’s become with the ball outside. Watch as Collin Sexton totally sells out at the 3-point line, which allows Jackson to slink by him to the basket and use that sneaky athleticism to convert the bucket with the contact:

After spending a year in college as a volume shooter from outside, it’s taken three years for Jackson to get back to playing his game. Currently averaging 8.7 points per game, he’s the second-highest scoring two-way player in the contract’s short history, trailing only Alex Caruso’s 9.2 points per game average two years ago.

Jackson is young, man. He should be a senior in college this season.

Here’s a list of guards (22 and younger) who’ve played at least 16 minutes per game and attempted 3.5 or more triples per game while averaging 8.5 or more points per game on at least .600 TS% and .400 3P%:

Basketball Reference

Not a bad list to be on. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the obvious outlier here, but the rest of these guys fit the valuable role player mold that so many of these diamond-in-the-rough types do — specifically a guy like Landry Shamet, the only other second-rounder listed.

Jackson has been one of the best stories of the season for the Pistons. His play leads the way, but he’s always the one you notice when the team posts the team’s pre-game fits on social media, and his ever-changing hair brought back Fear the Fro memories this week.

But it’s his improved game that’s gotten him here.

His scoring and effort are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to two-way players. He’s established himself as the team’s best shooter behind Wayne Ellington, and has shown to be the kind of malleable reserve who can fill a role on any team because, as we all know, you can never have too much shooting.

Defense remains a problem area for him, but there’s plenty of time to work on that. Jackson will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and he’s bound to go from two-way player into a hefty raise on a multi-year contract.

In the end, I’m not sure that Jackson will ever be a starter for the Pistons. I’m pretty confident that he’s earned a spot in this rebuild, though.

Before the season, Weaver talked a lot about the “core” group from this year’s draft: Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Lee.

Those guys are certainly still part of this, but it’s time we add Jackson to that list, too.

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