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2019-20 Player Preview: Frank Jackson poised for breakout season, but stacked New Orleans Pelicans roster could interfere with that plan

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Ferrari Frank has all the tools to become a difference-maker in the NBA, but will he get an opportunity to prove himself this season?

New Orleans Pelicans Media Day Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There’s no question Frank Jackson has the measurables and athleticism to become an elite-level scorer and solid NBA contributor. But coming off just his first official season, he may remain on the outside looking in when it comes to grabbing a regular rotation spot on this loaded New Orleans Pelicans team.

Jackson possesses and has exhibited next-level speed, finishing ability and perimeter touch in both the G-League and summer league, where he famously exploded for 30 points in just three quarters of action this past July.

Problem is, Jackson struggled during 61 games last season, finishing 86th among 88 qualified point guards in real-plus minus. A negative net rating (-5.0) and assist to turnover ratio made playing him in meaningful minutes a difficult proposition.

But teammates and coaches are of the mindset that Jackson is putting it together. As his summer strength and conditioning coach Mike Guevara inferred, ”It’s all between his ears.”

“We got him on a few of the same tests he took at the combine and he was able to match those numbers — and even improve on some of those vertical jumping sets in less time than he was given at his pre-combines,” said Guevara. “So what this means to me, this dude’s ceiling isn’t a ceiling, it’s a sky.”

Playing at next-level speed comes with its own set of caveats when considering Jackson’s game. He often over pursues and overplays on possessions. His body reacts before his mind can consider and assess — a trait typical of young players adjusting to the speed of the NBA game.

However, it’s important to note that the game isn’t too fast for Jackson. If anything, it’s too slow. Jackson just needs to let his mind do the work for him before letting his body dictate the action.

“I think it’s getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said back in March. “I think with him, it’s all about confidence. I think the more he plays, the more confidence he gets.”

“The more Frank plays, the better he’s getting and the better he feels about himself,” Gentry reiterated more recently on October 3rd.

Jackson received a good number of opportunities last season thanks to injuries and the franchise-imploding event that was the Anthony Davis trade request. Jackson was most impressive during the month of March, when he averaged 18 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per 36 minutes. He also shot 45.6 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three in those 13 games. However, a poor -6.3 plus-minus in the month still looms large. That of course comes with the stipulation that the Pelicans had nothing to play for and rested Jrue Holiday and Davis during most of that run.

“Frank’s getting a great opportunity to play and is making progress,” interim general manager Danny Ferry said on March 14th. “Well, he’s obviously a young player. He didn’t get to play at all last year. He played one year at Duke. He has a lot to learn. I think the game is starting to slow down for him some, and for a young guy, that’s step one. And then you can really start to make improvements. But as the game slows down for him, he’ll get better and better.”

The main takeaway in regards to last season is that Jackson was seemingly putting it together when afforded the chance. Scoring in double-digits over his last ten games is no small feat for a 20-year-old rookie in the professional ranks.

“The big thing for me is that he’s not duplicating mistakes,” said Gentry. “You tell him something and then he takes that out of his game and tries to take a step forward. That’s the big thing.”

But as he approaches his second season, Jackson finds himself in an odd predicament. The Pelicans are stocked in the backcourt.

Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball are entrenched as the starters. Next in line is Sixth Man of the Year candidate JJ Redick, who’s contract and role of mentor assures his place in the rotation. You have Gentry’s trusted three-point assassin, E’Twaun Moore, who disclosed the coaching staff’s desire to see him shoot six or more threes per game this season. That many threes infers a player whom expects to play 20 minutes or more.

Available minutes are shrinking by the second.

You’ve got recent Laker acquisition Josh Hart, who finished third in 2018-19 in defensive real-plus minus. Remember, the Pelicans reportedly passed on offers of a first-round future draft pick for Hart which suggests they plan the play the podcast savant.

With Moore, Hart and Redick potentially ahead in line, in addition to Nicolo Melli and Jahlil Okafor as the first reserves off the bench in the frontcourt, the Pelicans are already up to a 10-man rotation.

As Orlando Magic head coach, Steve Clifford said last week, ”Guys need minutes to play well.”

Sure, Gentry can extend to an 11 or even 12-man rotation, but that could ultimately come at a cost to both the team and the players because they wouldn’t have the necessary time to get comfortable and establish a rhythm.

Besides, Jackson looks to have an even bigger problem — Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Jackson can serve as a scoring assassin, with the necessary size and strength to defend 1s and 2s on the other end. He’s exhibited flashes of a more expansive skill set, including facilitating after defenses break down, but he hasn’t yet shown he can manage an offense or read a defense before the action.

NAW, on the other hand, has exhibited skills in most facets of the game, from perimeter shooting to playmaking to an ever expansive list of special skills and maneuvers to create space for himself. He doesn’t simply rely on spot up situations or attacking closeouts. In fact, it’d be easier to categorize what NAW can do than what he can’t. So far, we’ve seen a lot more of the former.

NAW injected life into the sleepy Pels against the Bulls last night, accumulating seven assists in his first ten minutes. That, in addition to scoring 10 of the Pelicans last 12 points and posting a game-high positive 22 plus-minus, ultimately led to the 23-point come-from-behind victory.

So, while Jackson has shown growth and earned the praise from teammates and coaches alike, will Gentry reward him with minutes over his teammates? He might be forced to if Jackson continues to show a dead-eye three-point stroke as he did Wednesday night against the Bulls.

In addition to a positive 19 plus-minus, Jackson hit all four of three point attempts. The young reserve group (all 23 or younger) of NAW - Hart - Kenrich - Okafor, and you guessed it, Frankie J, deserve all the credit for turning around what appeared to be a sure-fire and utterly disappointing contest in Chicago.

The Pels have plenty of time to be patient and can afford to rest their stars on long road trips and back-to-backs, giving young studs like NAW and Jackson the necessary time to find their footing on the floor and gain some necessary experience. The franchise will not be in championship mode as the priority should be on development and that should afford these youngsters some opportunity.

But as of now, it appears Jackson may not be a part of the immediate 10-man rotation, and again, this isn’t an indictment of Frank Jackson.

I’m one of his biggest fans and a staunch defender. Jackson has every tool to become great. His upside is tremendous. He fell to the first pick in the second round not because of ability but injury concern — a stress fracture in his foot.

Also, it’s not his fault that he has to be great in just his second campaign to catch on with this Pels’ team. Instead, blame David Griffin and Trajan Langdon for putting together a talented 14-man roster, each of whom will be deserving of minutes on an NBA floor this upcoming season.

While he’s incredibly close to Holiday, Jackson was brought in during the Dell Demp’s regime. This begets the question, does current Pelicans management fancy Jackson more or less than Josh Hart, NAW and others?

“Frank Jackson is the biggest Jrue Holiday fan in the world,” said Guevara, choosing his words thoughtfully. “Whenever Jrue speaks, Frank is wide-eyed, looking straight at him. Frank wants to be Jrue — and I mean that in the most humble, most honorable way. Frank loves Jrue Holiday to death.”

One important point that must also be mentioned is that Jackson should have the opportunity to prove himself and perhaps in time he’ll show more value than veterans like Moore or Hart, who could be dealt for a larger fish as we approach the deadline.

But as the season starts, we’ll have to assume Jackson will be on the outside looking in. If the team performs up to high levels of expectation and avoids injury, he could stay there throughout.

Frank Jackson has the talent to break out. Will that opportunity come with the Pelicans or will he have to wait until he finds a new home...

For more on our Pelicans breakout preseason performance, check out our latest podcast below!

Let’s geaux, Pels!

2019-20 Player Previews:

Jrue Holiday

Didi Louzada

E’Twaun Moore

Derrick Favors

Nickeil Alexander-Walker