For an NBA rookie, Blazers point guard Jarrett Jack has already seen it all.
“It’s been a very interesting year,” Jack said, a large smile quickly developing on his face.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I joined this team. And things definitely haven’t gone like we were hoping. But I’m still just working hard, working on my game. And I think it’s starting to pay off.”
Averaging 6.2 points, 2.6 assists and two rebounds an outing, Jack has now appeared in more games (73) than any other player on the Blazers’ roster. And he has without question caught the attention of Portland head coach Nate McMillan.
“He’s a good kid,” McMillan said. “He’s been a hard worker since day one. He has a good understanding of how the game works, how the game needs to be played. And he is very unselfish. He can pass, shoot, drive, defend – he’s got a lot of potential.”
Perhaps the biggest compliment that one could give Jack is a deceptively simple one: he’s playing.
When Portland selected the Fort Washington, Md., native and former Georgia Tech star in the first round of last year’s NBA draft (22nd overall), many Blazers fans were left scratching their heads.
Portland already had Sebastian Telfair. And to make room for Telfair, the Blazers had let go of high-priced veterans Derek Anderson, Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel.
Yet, what did Portland do in the draft? Select not one, but two guards (Martell Webster being the second). And then the Blazers doubled their money by signing free-agent guards Steve Blake and Juan Dixon before the NBA year officially even began.
The outlook for Jack immediately went from rosy to black.
“Yeah, it was like, all of a sudden, there was this backlog at the guard position,” Jack confessed. “But I just did what I’ve always done. I did the same things that got me to where I am today.”
For Jack, the doubting has become somewhat routine.
“People said the same thing when I was in college,” he said. “And then, during the draft, I was ignored. But I know who I am, what I can do. And I’m just here to prove it.”
Prove it he has.
In a season that resembles nothing less than a hell-bent rollercoaster ride, Jack has been the sole steady player for Portland. Combining deft ball-handling skills, a soft shooter’s touch, an open eye on the floor and steadily improving defense, Jack has gone from being just another rookie guard on the bench to Portland’s go-to guy as soon as the starters take a breather. Topping it off, he’s even cracked McMillan’s starting lineup as of late.
“He’s earned it,” McMillan said. “The kid’s worked hard – as hard or harder than anyone that we’ve had.”
Jack backs up McMillan’s words.
“I’ll come out here [to practice] a couple of hours early, before anyone else is even out on the court, just to shoot and work on things,” Jack said. “And I think that coach notices. Every once in a while he’ll tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I saw you out there today.’ And all of that hard work has gotten me into the starting lineup.”
As for making the transition from college to the NBA, Jack said that he has just taken it all in stride.
“Other than the money, it’s really not that different. I’ve bonded with some of the guys – me, Sebastian and Dixon have gotten pretty close. And in my free time, I mainly just watch movies. I’m definitely a ‘movies guy.’ Even when I’m in Portland, I just like renting and going to the movies,” he said.
“I’m excited about ‘Inside Man.’ You can’t go wrong if it’s got Denzel and was done by Spike [Lee],” Jack said excitedly.
According to the rookie guard, the toughest thing about playing in the NBA thus far has been something that the Blazers have been all too accustomed to as of late: losing.
“The losing’s hard,” Jack said. “I didn’t lose that much in college, you know. It weighs on me. But the only thing I can do is just keep working on my shot, my defense, my game.”
As the season has gone and the losses have mounted, Jack’s done just that.
“He’s definitely improved,” McMillan said. “When I first used to put him out there, I really think that he was nervous. He would either try to do too much or not do enough. But lately, he’s really shown me something.”
Jack agrees with McMillan’s sentiment.
“Yeah, I was nervous at first,” he confessed. “I mean, you’re going up against guys that you’ve heard about your whole life. It’s kind of like, ‘Whoa, man, I’m guarding Steve Nash tonight.’ But, after a while, you settle down. And I definitely think that I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable out there. I’m seeing things better and clearer. And my confidence is solid.”
In his last 20 games, Jack has become one of the best young point guards in the game today. With a surprisingly strong physique, Jack is able to post up taller guards, ala Detroit’s Chauncey Billups. And as his shooting has improved, he has found that his innate ability to drive to the basket with force and convert can catch teams off guard.
“Yeah, I can do both,” Jack said. “That’s a big thing in this league, if you’re a guard: being able to shoot and drive. And I can do it. I love driving too. It’s when I get to show my stuff.”
Show his stuff he has. Jack has wowed both teammates and opponents alike with a startling array of quick, shuffling, now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t moves.
“He looks like me out there,” Telfair said with a laugh.
It’s a 50-50 shot that there will be an open guard position for the Blazers when the season begins next year. Jack wants that position to be his.
“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to start next year,” Jack said. “So, I’m doing everything that I can to make that happen. I came into this league to play, to start, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”