Leader Blues

Friday, November 06, 2009

SPORTS >> She’s got next

Jessica Jackson has received major-college scholarship offers without a minute of varsity experience.

Leader sports editor

It starts innocently enough.

A young girl picks up a basketball and joins a team. She develops her game and then, as predictably as sunshine follows rain, the college recruiters eventually come calling.

That’s how it happened for Jacksonville’s Jessica Jackson, but at a pace unheard of around these parts.

Without playing a minute of varsity basketball, Jackson, a freshman, has become a recruiting darling with offers from two major colleges, including Arkansas. That’s a first for the Jacksonville program, coach Katrina Mimms said, but it’s a first Jackson deserves.

“She’s legit,” Mimms said.

It doesn’t matter that NCAA rules keep Jackson from accepting the offers — the other came from Texas A&M — until she is a
junior. What has impressed local observers is that she is being recruited at all at her age.

“You hear about it in boys but you don’t hear about it in girls as much,” Mimms said. “Both coaches told me that they had never offered a ninth-grader.”

Jackson, 6-2, is an inside-outside threat who can handle the ball and projects as a strong forward for Mimms. At the major college level she is being recruited as a guard.

“She just brings a person that the other team is going to have to defend because she’s so versatile,” Mimms said.

“I dribble a lot and shoot,” Jackson said.

Jackson took up basketball as a sixth-grader wanting to emulate her older sisters Jennifer and Kailyn. By most accounts her initial tryout, with the Arkansas Select winter program at North Little Rock’s Glenview Community Center, did not go well.

“There was a couple comments made that she couldn’t make it,” Jackson’s father, Jeff, said. “A couple said she wasn’t going to do anything and that’s when I went to work with her.”

Countless hours under Jeff’s supervision at the Jacksonville Community Center began to have an effect and Jessica blossomed into a standout with the AAU Arkansas Mavericks.

“She’s a type of kid that works tremendously,” said Jeff, a former center/forward at Carlisle High School. “She does the repetitions. She’s a hard-working kid.”

“I enjoy it,” Jessica said. “I don’t, like, practice every single day but I practice a lot. I get breaks but I practice pretty hard.”

Jackson has been to the Nike Invitational Top 80 camp in College Station, Texas; played in the AAU 13-and-under nationals near Cincinnati and was among renowned trainer Ganon Baker’s featured top 200.

With Jackson, the Mavericks 12-and-under team reached the national final four at Westchester, Minn. Last year, Jackson’s 13-and-under team finished third in the nationals at King Island, Ohio.

“I teach on advancement,” Mavericks coach Ed Durham said. “And she is very tuned in mentally and she understands the aspects of the game. She loves to work. I can’t work her hard enough. She’s one of those kids who wants to learn more about the game.”

Durham said he toughened Jackson and his teammates by working them against his 15-and-under national champions.

Apparently, Jackson was one who rose to the challenge.

“She might be an All-American type kid,” Durham said.

But as soon as he makes such statements, Durham throws up a flag of caution.

In his position, Durham has seen numerous players come and go and seen the stands full of major-college recruiters.

He knows that for every phenom like Jackson, there are numerous others whose careers hit a plateau or bottomed out.

“Just look at the NBA and tell me if the No. 1 lottery pick is still playing from the 2000 lottery class,” Durham said. “Those players vanish away very quickly.”

It remains to be seen if Jackson will be the player she is projected to be in high school, let alone college. Durham said Jackson must develop her strength, and Jackson admits her outside game and left-handed dribble still need work.

With Jacksonville, 10-16 and seventh in the 6A-East last year, Jackson won’t have to be the central figure and assume all the pressure of getting the Lady Red Devils to the state tournament.

Multi-sport standout Jessica Lanier, a 6-1 senior post, is finished with volleyball and Jacksonville should have solid guard play with Sherice Randell while senior Apollonia Sims returns at one forward.

“She’ll start outside,” Mimms said of Jackson. “We’re going to let her start outside because we have Lanier and another girl who can handle the inside.”

But if Jackson continues to progress, her ability will show and the heat from the recruiting spotlight will intensify. That means Jackson and her family can expect more offers though which they will have to sift.

Such attention can be notoriously hard on young athletes.

Wynne football player DeAngelo Williams was the centerpiece of a tug of war between Arkansas and Memphis and earned the wrath of many of the Razorback faithful when he rejected the Hogs for the Tigers before going on to run the ball with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Little Rock Central’s Joe Johnson, now with the Atlanta Hawks, was THE recruit from the state when he signed with Arkansas and played two years, from 2000-01, before leaving for the NBA.

Perhaps women’s basketball doesn’t quite command the attention of the men’s game, but if one believes everything being said about Jackson, she could wind up as a female counterpart to Johnson among statewide recruits.

“She has a chance to be very special but it’s very early,” Durham said. “Don’t get me wrong. I try and let her dad and her know that. But if she applies herself she can be one of the most special girls players to come out of the state of Arkansas.

“But once again, it’s still early and I like to tell everybody that.”

So many things still have to happen for Jackson to meet expectations.

Beginning this season, she must consistently improve and live up to the hype; she must stay injury free; two years from now she must pick the school that best suits her; she must arrive on campus and again live up to expectations; she must stay eligible and keep her passion for the game even while dealing with all the factors that could burn her out.

Jeff Jackson said he expects to be hearing from close to 50 schools next year, if all goes well. And he wants Jessica to sign early to get her out of the recruiting spotlight as quickly as possible.

Jessica herself seems to have already learned the first rule of being a sought-after recruit: keep your plans close to the vest.

“I like to wait and see what kind of offers I get,” she said.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do for Jackson right now, with her horizons so inviting yet so wide and uncertain, is to simply let her enjoy being a high school freshman.

An admitted stage parent, Jeff Jackson nonetheless said that is exactly what he wants to do.

“We’re just concentrating on grades right now, to be honest with you,” he said. “We’re just concentrating on getting her out of the ninth grade and letting her be a 14-year-old girl.”