After a brutal loss to the Brooklyn Nets to kick off 2019, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to catch their footing with a dominant 35-point victory over the basement-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers. However, the win would only improve the team’s record to a still-disappointing 18-22.
In a Western Conference with 14 teams well within reach of a playoff spot, none can afford losses like the one sustained in Brooklyn. Only five of the Pelicans 121 points in that contest came from the bench, marking a low point for a unit that, thanks to both injuries and poor performance, has struggled for most of this season. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have consistently played at an All-Star level, and Julius Randle has shouldered his own fair share of the offensive burden, especially during Nikola Mirotic’s recent absence. Even with those four plus Elfrid Payton finally back on the court, if the Pelicans are to flip their fortunes in the second half of the season, they need someone else to step up.
Fortunately for them, Frank Jackson may be rising to the occasion.
In both of the teams wins this week, Jackson was a spark plug, scoring a career-high 17 points on Monday against Memphis only to surpass that mark with 19 more on Wednesday in a rematch versus the Cavaliers. The Pelicans have to be thrilled with these results alone, but the manner in which Jackson achieved them could be reason to expect more of the same from the rookie guard.
The Pelicans played a dominant second half of basketball on both ends to take down Memphis 114-95. As usual, Anthony Davis led the team with an incredibly efficient yet entirely unsurprising 36 points on 14-20 shooting from the field. The surprise was Frank Jackson’s’ 17, which amounted to the second highest total on the team.
Jackson did not score a single point in the first half but caught fire late in the third quarter, scoring 10 final three minutes of the frame and spearheading a Pelicans run that widened a gap on scoreboard that the Grizzlies would never again threaten to close.
His first bucket was quite simple. The Pelicans got out in transition with a man advantage, spread out the shorthanded Grizzlies defense and got the ball to the open shooter, who drilled the open look. Jahlil Okafor’s kick-out to Darius Miller triggers Jackson’s movement deeper into the corner to create the necessary space, which Miller sees and acts on immediately. Jackson’s role in this play is minimal, but for a team that wants to run, the importance of having another player with the confidence and wherewithal to execute plays such as this would be more than welcome.
Jackson deserves more individual credit for his second make, which came less than a minute later. Tim Frazier penetrates to the free throw line while Jackson stands wide open in the near corner. Justin Holiday, the primary defender on the play, sees Tim Frazier realize this, but the second that he attempts to move into the passing lane, Jackson bolts along the baseline, snags the nifty bounce pass from Frazier and maneuvers around a waiting Joakim Noah to convert the reverse layup.
His most highlight reel-worthy play of the night came on a slick behind-the-back pass to fellow Duke University alumnus Jahlil Okafor, who finished the play with an easy layup. It could have easily resulted in a bad shot or even a turnover given how obstructed his path forward was, but Jackson made the right play without a moment’s hesitation. Joel Meyers was excited, I was excited and you can bet that Alvin Gentry and company were as well.
As much as I enjoyed that pass, my personal favorite play of Jackson’s night was his step back triple in the fourth quarter. It was a wicked move, creating plenty of space (once again at the expense of Justin Holiday) to comfortably launch and sink the shot.
Jrue Holiday works the occasional step back into his name every now and then, and it’s usually quite smooth, but the ferocity of Jackson’s more closely embodied the quickness often associated with the likes of James Harden and Damian Lillard. Few, if any Pelicans have displayed the ability to make this play in recent history, a play that has become increasingly commonplace for the perimeter-oriented stars of today’s league. Finally seeing someone pull it off was a welcome breath of fresh air.
As impressive of an outing as it was, it was only one night, 19 minutes, 10 shot attempts (seven of which were made) and one assist. Career-best games are, by their nature, hard to surpass. But Jackson, coming off of only his 26th career game, was able to do just that on Wednesday night.
Scoring 19 points on only 5 (!!) field goal attempts against the Cavaliers was as perfect a follow-up performance the Pelicans could have asked for. Jackson finished the night with a pristine 4-4 from three and 7-7 from the free throw line, two-point shots be damned.
The ball first found him earlier than it did against Memphis, and he sank his first triple right before the end of the first quarter to cut a ballooning double-digit deficit to 10.
His second three of the evening, similar to his stepback on Monday, came in a fashion we have not come to expect from this Pelicans team. They rank 23rd in the league in pull-up three point attempts per game (7.1) and convert them at a 31 percent clip, only good enough for 21st. Jackson has only attempted 12 such shots so far this season, which is a paltry sample size, but the fact that he has knocked down six of them, and has looked as smooth as he has while doing so, suggests that whatever regression awaits may not be as steep as we might expect.
Jackson’s other two makes in the contest came off of fairly wide open looks, which were generated in large part by a brutal defensive showing from the Cavaliers (the Pelicans did score a franchise-record 81 points in the second half), but the stroke looks clean, and the hesitation that was present in much of his early season action has all but vanished.
These two games mark Jackson’s best thus far, but his play in the stretch of games prior contained signs that a breakout performance was imminent.
Entering the matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 12, Jackson had been inactive for eight straight contests. He logged four DNP-CDs before being shipped to the Texas Legends, the Pelicans’ G-League affiliate to get some minutes in. Fortunately for all parties involved, in addition racking up those few extra minutes, Jackson averaged 29 points per game during his three-game stint, prompting a call-up before the Thunder came to town.
Since that call-up, Jackson has played in 12 of a possible 13 games and logged double-digit minutes in nine of those 12 games. In another admittedly small sample of 142 minutes across all 12 games played, his numbers per 36 minutes clock in at 17.4 points with a 54 percent mark from the field on 11.3 attempts and a 59.1 (!!) percent mark on five attempts from three. Jordan “Instant Grits” Crawford (who is now Israel-bound) would scoff at Jackson’s 16.2 percent usage rate, but that fits the bill for this team just fine.
Where Does He Go From Here?
Jackson’s semi-emergence could not come at a better time. Much has been made of the fact that Holiday and Davis have been among the league leaders in minutes played all season, in part because of the injuries but also because of how horrendous things get without them on the court. The ability to move two of Moore, Miller and Randle to the bench will hopefully give both stars a chance to pump the brakes a bit more often, but even that secondary unity is severely limited in its own ways.
To call Jackson a reliable option off the bench would be premature, but the talent to be just that and perhaps even more has become increasingly apparent since last month. He certainly has holes in his game, as demonstrated by his Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking of 466 out of 474. At the very least, though, he is proving that he belongs on an NBA court, faults and all, and for a team that desperately needs the added depth, that could be good enough.