Luke Jackson wasn’t drafted to act as the Scottie Pippen to LeBron James’ Michael Jordan, but he wasn’t exactly selected in 2004 to act as his John Paxson either. The former Oregon product was acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers to be a significant piece in the rebuilding plan staged around LBJ, a top-flight scorer that wouldn’t be asked to merely stand around the perimeter waiting for James’ handouts. Jackson was coming off of a senior season with NCAA stats that rivaled that of Pippen’s, averaging over 21 points and nearly 12 combined rebounds and assists, and the 10th overall selection seemed like a perfect all-around fit to lineup alongside the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year.
Two slipped discs in his back changed all that, as Jackson only played 10 games in his entire rookie season. He managed just 34 contests in 2005-06, and by the start of his third season he’d been dealt to the Boston Celtics for training camp fodder, and a camp cut before the campaign could even start. As James’ Cavaliers eventually built their way toward becoming an NBA Finals representative in 2007, Jackson was in and out of the D-League, where he put up respectable stats that still failed to win over NBA scouts. After stints with the Clippers, Raptors and Heat, Jackson was out of the league for good in 2008 after just 73 games played.
That frustrating, injury-plagued career is one reason Jackson was considering his coaching prospects all the way back in 2004, when he was diagnosed with that life-altering back malady. Now the head basketball coach at tiny Northwest Christian University, Jackson is more or less past his pro career gone wrong, and he discussed as much with The Oregonian’s Adam Jude:
He believes he will feel comfortable as a coach, too. He cites some of the veteran coaches he played for in the NBA — Pat Riley, Mike Dunleavy and Nate McMillan, whom he played for during training camp with the Trail Blazers in 2008 — as mentors. He would attend coaches' meetings and keep notes in a journal.
"I've tried to cling on to what they were preaching," he says. "I'm not saying I'll be even anything close to them, but I feel like more than most guys, because of my injuries, I was holding onto everything they were trying to do and I started thinking about it from that standpoint probably before most players, because I always had one foot out the door."
Still, he doesn't cling to regret.
"I'm at peace with that. Completely," he says of the injuries. "It did take me awhile to come to that place. ...
A scorer with size, Jackson really should have been a terrific all-around counterpart to James. The Cavaliers could be criticized for passing on players like Josh Smith and Al Jefferson in selecting Luke in 2004, but after years of picking up high school or one-and-done fliers like James, Ricky Davis, DaJuan Wagner and Darius Miles, the Cavaliers were looking for some relative 22-year old stability in the former Oregon Duck.
That back issue, coupled with a complete hamstring tear, complicated things. Jackson attempted to latch on to an NBA team by participating in Summer League lineups while accepting camp invites, but nothing was sticking. After one season with Hapoel Jerusalem B.C. in the Israeli league, Jackson called it quits at 30 years of age.
Though NCU is relatively tiny, the clear silver lining in Jackson’s short-clipped career is that he had to make a point to pay attention to the basketball afterlife at a young age, which is why he’s been afforded this head coaching gig in his early 30s. At least something lasting and solid came out of a brief NBA run that was unfairly denied from reaching its potential due to injury.
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