Rick Jackson - a Cuse Country retrospective

November 2007: a group of talented yet enigmatic freshmen make their debuts for the Syracuse University men’s basketball team. The prize of the class was forward Donte Greene, who was heralded as the next coming of Carmelo Anthony. Greene was joined by a dynamic point guard named Jonny Flynn, and two high school teammates from Philadelphia: Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson. (Also the freakishly-built rail-thin center Sean Williams.) Expectations were all over the place. As is always the case, nobody really knew what we were going to get from these freshmen until the season actually got going. Thus, the first post on Cuse Country that officially referenced Rick Jackson was this sequence of “burning preseason questions”. The one concerning Rick was:

Is Rick Jackson’s game as ready for college basketball as his body is?

Watching Rick play in the first game of the season (the Jonny Flynn explosion against Siena) led Tom to make this observation:

Rick Jackson looks like a 14 year-old boy’s head sewn onto a man’s body. It’s easy to forget that most of the college freshman are a few months out of childhood, and may still visit pediatricians over summer vacation. Rick Jackson’s head serves as a reminder.

Further into that season, Syracusan got psychic on us:

Is it just me, or does the lineup featuring Jackson and Onuaku together look extremely promising? I know they’re both lumbering centers, but they’re also both undersized and have the look of power-forwards. I think having them both on the court at the same time should be doable. They’re both nifty interior passers and catchers, and a few times this year they’ve had great feeds to one another. It feels like SU has gone a generation without having a big man with good hands, and suddenly we’ve been blessed with two at the same time. It’s fun to watch those guys out there, and I think it puts a lot of pressure on opponents when they’re in at the same time.

Keep in mind, this was written when Rick was a freshman and Arinze a sophomore, as opposed to two years later when this combination keyed the run to a #1 seed.

Rick’s freshman year was one of growth and solid contributions to the team. Playing behind Onuaku and K-Ong, he appeared in every game, playing 13 mintues per game, averaging 3.7ppg and 3.0rpg. He had the 2nd-best rebounds-per-minute rate on the team behind Arinze, and we eagerly awaited his “sophomore jump”.

In the 2008-09 preseason, Syracusan called Rick “The guy no one is talking about“. He pointed out Rick’s excellent rebounding and shot blocking rates from the previous year, as well as his 52% shooting, and had this to say:

The dude looked smooth out there when given the opportunity, and with a year of seasoning under his belt I expect him to be better equipped to whip those moves out against Big East caliber defenders. The game moved a little fast for him last season — like it does for all freshmen — and I think a lot of people weren’t noticing the talent signals he was sending out. Thing should slow down for him now, and he’s in a great position to be an uncommon asset off the bench for us this season.

Jackson began that season coming off the bench, but things turned around in the Canisius game. To start the 2nd half, Boeheim chose to put Rick on the floor instead of Kristof. And it worked:

man did it work. I mean, like gangbusters. The first 5-8 minutes of the second half were the Jackson-Onuaku show, and a frustratingly close game turned into a wipeout immediately. For the first half dozen possessions (on offense and defense) nearly every single rebound or basket was by either Rick or Arinze — and if someone else on the team shot, one of them got the offensive rebound. They were blocking shots, they were triggering breaks with outlet passes, they were freeing each other up. It was a sight to behold….

Syracusan titled that post “A hint of things to come?” and indeed it was more than a hint. Ricky joined the starting lineup for the next game (against Memphis) and never looked back. The Memphis game began a string of 93 consecutive starts, counting today’s season finale. Rick would go on to post averages of 8.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game that year, while leading the team with 60 blocked shots (despite playing only the sixth-most overall minutes on the season).

Rick’s junior season was when that Twin Tower experiment really took off (as much as two guys who are both 6′9″ can be considered “towers”). With newcomer godsend Wes Johnson joining the team, it gave the Orange the perfect balance on offense — two dominant post players, two deadly outside shooters, and a highly capable floor general — and insane length on defense. Rick was still something of an afterthought, but he showed early on what he could do if you forgot about him, against Florida on a “neutral court” in Tampa:

Obvious credit goes to Jackson for his monster first half; if not for his efforts we are probably down 6 instead of up 6 at halftime. He ends up leading the team with either 19 points (according to the AP) or 21 points (according to ESPN). He is the sixth person to lead the team in scoring so far, in just nine games…. Opposing coaches are going to have nightmares scheming to stop the incredible offensive balance on this team.

Editor’s note: official stats now have him with 21 points and 11 rebounds in that game. It was the first 20-point game of his career.

Rick was the Laurel to Arinze’s Hardy all (regular) season, as the two of them combined to become an unstoppable machine in the paint. Of course, we all know what happened in the Big East Tournament that year, as Rick was unexpectedly thrust into a solo role at the most crucial time. Now that he was suddenly drawing the focus of the opponent’s best post player, his offensive game took a step back. The rest of the team was likewise thrown into semi-chaos, and their potentially historic run fizzled out. Rick’s season numbers came to 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and 69 blocks (once again leading the team in that category).

In the days leading up to the start of Jackson’s senior season, he was — amazingly — still the forgotten man. All the attention was on potential lottery pick Kris Joseph and stud freshmen Fab Melo and Dion Waiters. It was at this time that Syracusan astutely pointed out that “people been sleepin’ on Rick Jackson since 2007, and people still sleepin’ on Rick Jackson“:

In my eyes Rick Jackson is the key to the season. You read it here first, and I’ll stick with this all the way through. And the good news is, he’s also a rock of reliability and guaranteed performance for a team in the midst of lots of transition and uncertainty. SU is overflowing with talent, but there are questions up and down the lineup as to how everyone is going to fit into their new roles, whether or not guys will be able to step it up, how freshmen will integrate and perform…but there is one spot where there are simply no questions to ask — and that’s at power forward. Because that’s where Ricky roams, and that spot is on lockdown.

He was right, of course, because he’s smart like that. Of course, not all our observations from the beginning of this year have really come to pass. For instance (from the Canisius game):

It wasn’t a fluke against UNI when Rick Jackson made a face-up jumper. It looks like he has actually developed a reliable mid-range jump shot from 8-12 feet. He had a few in this game; he even hit one from the foul line elbow. This makes him a whole lot harder to defend and should frighten Big East coaches.

That little jumper has been shelved indefinitely ever since. But Rick has indeed been the key to the season, including in one area that we never really expected:

Rick Jackson’s passing, particularly his outlet passes off the defensive boards. The guards, especially Scoop, are just leaking out when a shot goes up, confident that Rick will not only grab the board but find them jetting to the opposite hoop. He’s thrown probably a dozen passes this year that have gone more than half the length of the court. I remember one that was ill-advised and forced, but the rest have led to Transition Opportunities.

And in fact Rick is averaging a tidy 2.3 assists per game this season, with a high of 5 against Providence. (His career high of 7 assists also came against Providence, last year when he dumped pass after pass to Arinze in the post.) This is the best assist average of his career, to go along with his other career highs in points (13.1), rebounds (10.8), blocks (2.4), and steals (1.2) — with several games left, of course.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson has gone from a “14-year-old’s head sewn onto a man’s body” to a likely NBA draft pick (currently projected in the early-to-mid 2nd round by NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com). And he’s done it with no drama, no attitude. Just an incredible work ethic, a “hard-hat” style of game, and a dedication to becoming better each and every day. Thank you, sir, for all that you have brought to this program. You will be missed.

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