Las Vegas Summer League is a place for the freshly drafted to hone their skills, the overlooked to turn some heads, and the contract players to show what they can do to the former. For most, it is a proving ground; a chance to show that they are ready for their first NBA contract. For some, it is merely practice for the guaranteed year to come. For Portland Trail Blazers guard Pierre Jackson, it is an opportunity to regain something he lost.
Jackson, 24, was a promising prospect out of Baylor when the Philadelphia 76ers selected him in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Sixers primarily coveted the 5'10" point guard with an incredible 42.5" vertical for his scoring and unique explosiveness. However, they immediately traded his rights to the New Orleans Pelicans in the deal that brought big man Nerlens Noel to Philadelphia.
Jackson never played in New Orleans, but after a successful season with the Idaho Stampede (in which he broke the old D-League single-game scoring record with a 58-point performance) and a brief stint in Turkey, the Pelicans traded his rights back to the 76ers in exchange for the draft rights of his current Summer League teammate Russ Smith. Jackson was about to get his shot. Or was he?
On the first day of the 2014 Orlando Summer League, Jackson ruptured his right achilles on a routine play. Covering the frustration and anguish on his face with a sweaty Gatorade towel, his teammates carried him from the court; the last time he would set un-booted foot on one for some time.
"Oh man, It was tough." Jackson says. "Once it happened, I was down about it for a couple days. As soon as Summer League was over, I had surgery. My mindset changed to 'time to get back to work.'"
The Sixers paid for Jackson's surgery and, in spite of his injury, offered him a partially guaranteed contract, but waived him when his timetable for recovery was set to 6-12 months. He signed with the Sixers again nearly a year later, but was hampered by a lingering groin injury in Summer League and, again, waived. He later re-joined the ranks of the NBA D-League before giving Summer League another go, this time with the Trail Blazers in his hometown of Las Vegas.
"I'm 100 percent." Jackson insists with a smile. "I'm good. The only thing that could be better is probably my conditioning, and that's when I get that throughout the summer, playing in the Summer League. Getting up and down has helped me a lot. I'm not out of shape, but it could be better."
Marginally slowed from what we have seen in the past, Jackson is still excelling, posting team-high averages of 12.7 points and 4.0 assists in just 26.0 minutes per game. In the Trail Blazers' first round loss to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, Jackson poured in 18 points like it was nothing.
"I thought he kept us in the game, hitting some big shots and being aggressive." says Trail Blazers Summer League coach Dale Osbourne. "He's been solid for us."
Looking at the Pelicans' recent re-signing of fan favorite Tim Frazier (another D-League standout with a repaired achilles) there is still a chance for Jackson to earn an NBA contract, even if is not with the Trail Blazers, who recently acquired backup point guard Shabazz Napier from the Orlando Magic.
Jackson has successfully showcased his skills over the course of the last week. As his conditioning improves so will his play. A gifted athlete south of 25, he appears among the most likely guards to receive a training camp invite from an NBA team this fall.
"It depends on what the team needs." Jackson states about his potential fit on a new squad. "I'm a scoring guard but I also can get everybody the ball. Everybody wants to see my explosiveness back, so once I get that, I think I'll be alright.
"I had a break away tonight. I didn't dunk it, so that kind of ties into me not being in as good of shape is all. Usually if I was in better shape, I would have dunked it for sure. I want to show everybody that I still can do that."
The Trail Blazers have one more Summer League game on their schedule; a consolation round matchup with the Boston Celtics this Friday. Since Napier has been sidelined with a shoulder injury for the final outing, Jackson and Smith are likely to receive the bulk of the minutes at point guard. Jackson has one more chance to impress the scouts before his fate is once again up in the air.
The NBA deck is always stacked against a sub-6-footer, and an achilles tear has been the end of more than a few talented competitors, but Jackson has recovered well and done everything right on his way to what could be a fruitful career to come under the right circumstances.