Detroit — Josh Jackson is a basketball nomad.
Since high school, he’s rarely stayed in one place for more than a year or two. It’s been hard for him to stay around long enough to grow roots and call a place home.
Jackson spent his first two years in high school at Detroit Consortium Prep, then moved to California and played two years at Prolific Prep. After one year at Kansas, he declared for the NBA Draft and was selected No. 4 overall by the Phoenix Suns.
He spent two tough years there, then another transitional year with the Memphis Grizzlies — mainly with their G League franchise — before returning to Detroit as a free agent. Last season, Jackson posted a career-best 13.4 points and he’s finding a niche with the Pistons’ second unit.
“It just kind of makes me feel like everything came full circle for me. Obviously, this was the team I grew up watching pretty much all of my early years and I’ve been a fan of this team for a very long time,” Jackson said. “Playing basketball was always what I wanted to do, so it just feels full-circle to be able to come here and play for this organization.”
Jackson is in his fifth NBA season but he’s only 24. Because he’s bounced around the league so much, different coaches have tried to use him in different ways, and it’s been hard to find a good footing without stability on a team.
He’s trying to change that by sticking with the Pistons. Jackson has become a nice piece for their reserve group with his rugged defense and all-around play with his 6-foot-8 frame. He brings a different attitude to his game, which has been percolating since he became one of the best high school basketball players in the country as a sophomore, leading Consortium to the Class C state title in 2014.
Jackson raised some eyebrows when he left Michigan and moved to California, and he became an elite five-star recruit in the major scouting services, ranking No. 1 or No. 2 nationally. There wasn’t much more for him to prove at Consortium.
“I don’t want to brag or anything, but when I was in high school, I was the man. It was just a little too easy here,” Jackson said. “After my first two years playing here, I felt like if I had come back and played my junior season here, I would have just dominated, and I really wouldn’t have had a challenge.
“Going out there was more to challenge myself, both basketball-wise and academically. (Prolific) was a great school, so I felt like it was a great decision for me.”
Jackson is a quintessential Detroit basketball player. He embodies the Detroit spirit and swagger, and he wears it just as plainly as the No. 20 on his jersey under the Pistons logo. There’s a toughness and confidence about him, whether he’s battling 7-foot center Joel Embiid for a rebound or making one of his scintillating blocks on defense.
He’s not backing down in either case.
“Detroit basketball players are known for being tough, giving maximum effort, never giving up, and being super competitive. When it comes to Josh, he fits all of the things I just mentioned and even more, just being competitive, tough and his background story,” said RaRedding Murray, a longtime high-school coach in Metro Detroit.
“Coming from the mud and not necessarily having it handed to you and really working and grinding his way to the top. Although he had a lot of accolades and a lot of attention, he really worked to get to where he is. That’s how he fits with Detroit.”
The Beilein effect
When John Beilein arrived this season with the Pistons as an advisor for player development, he formed a bond with Jackson almost immediately. Instead of basketball drills, Beilein had some suggested reading for Jackson: a book called “Chop Wood, Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great” by Joshua Medcalf.
In the book, the main character works toward his dream of becoming a samurai archer, but the road to success is filled with lessons about embracing the process and focusing on the details. The message hit home for Jackson.
“It wasn’t like a long book and it wasn’t a hard read at all, and it was actually really interesting. I’m going to be honest, I really don’t like reading, but when he gave me that book, and I started to go chapter by chapter, it was really relatable,” Jackson said. “It was something I was interested in and something that was helping me in my day-to-day life. I found it really helpful.”
For Beilein, a stickler for fundamentals and the finer points of basketball, landing with the Pistons made for a good pairing with a young, developing roster. It’s not just the young draft picks such as Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes, but also moldable pieces like Jackson, who fits in the same development timeline with the young core.
Beilein has experience in developing other players during his tenure at Michigan. Many of them are thriving in the NBA, using the fundamentals they learned from college as a springboard to success. That’s what he’s trying to impart to Jackson.
“He’s so young. I reminded him when I first got here that (Miami Heat guard) Duncan Robinson was 24 when he graduated from Michigan. I told him that worked out all right — and you’re young,” Beilein said. “You’ve got all this NBA experience. Just take it nice and slow, and just prioritize these little things in your practice.”
It’s all about perspective, and although they seem like an unlikely pairing, Beilein has been able to get through to Jackson, who has embraced the sage advice.
“Our relationship has been great; he’s a great guy and he helps me out a lot. He pays attention to small details,” Jackson said. “I joke with him every day and I give him (crap) for not recruiting me while I was (in Detroit). I love working with Beilein.”
Keeping it simple
The plan for Jackson is to simplify his game and give him fewer things to worry about. Instead of being an all-around player who does many things well, it’s about just narrowing the focus.
“That’s the best thing with Josh, the fact that he’s not trying to do too much. I’ve always tried to sell him on being the beneficiary of a rebound. Rebound it, get it to the point guard and run,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Now, get it back on the other end, and you only have to make one decision: how am I going to score the ball?
“When you’ve got to bring that ball down full court, try to go one-on-one and make a play, that’s very difficult. He’s done a much better job of recognizing that, reading that and keeping it simple, and using his talents.”
Although it might seem more distracting to be back home with family and friends, Jackson has found a way to make it more calming for him.
“He has a comfort level here. He knows the city and he has family here, and hopefully, that does bring some comfort for him to play and perform the right way,” Casey said. “It’s good for the city to have a guy in the NBA from the same neighborhood. It’s an example for the kids here that you can make it if you work hard. He should be that role model for the kids here in Detroit.”
Pacers at Pistons
►Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
►Outlook: The Pistons (3-10) played one of their worst games of the season in a 129-107 loss to the Sacramento Kings, but Cade Cunningham had a career-best 25 points. … Malcolm Brogdon (22.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists) is having an All-Star season for the Pacers (6-9).