Justin Jackson had his number called early in Saturday night’s loss at Detroit.
Kings coach Dave Joerger needed to match up with the Pistons’ smaller lineup, which features versatile scorer Tobias Harris playing power forward instead of the small forward he might be in a traditional lineup.
So the rookie entered the game in the first quarter, tasked with chasing Harris.
“I think that was encouraging for me that he felt confident putting me in there,” Jackson said after Monday’s practice at Golden 1 Center. “Obviously he’s their leading scorer, he can get it going quick so ... to put me in there and try to guard him real quick was encouraging for me.”
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Jackson hasn’t been discouraged as his role has changed. He began the season as the only rookie in the Kings’ starting lineup, but has come off the bench the last four games.
The coaching staff expressed confidence in Jackson’s ability to fit in dating to summer league, noting his basketball IQ would help overcome a slight frame.
“Justin’s a guy that can fit in with any group that he plays with,” Joerger said.
Jackson’s confidence is unwavering, even as a reserve.
“Obviously that’s always been a goal of mine, to start,” Jackson said. “But at this level I’m blessed to be able to be playing, for sure in my rookie year, let alone 15 minutes or whatever my minutes are, whether that’s in the starting lineup or whatever it is.”
The former North Carolina standout is averaging 17.2 minutes and 5.3 points. He’s playing small forward, a position Joerger said might be the toughest to learn in the NBA, given some of the league’s dominant wing players.
In Tuesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jackson might encounter Paul George or Carmelo Anthony, two of the NBA’s premier wings. It will be a big test for Jackson to enter a game against either.
Not only is he a rookie, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he’s not going to add 20 pounds in time for Tuesday’s tip-off to deal with the physicality George and Anthony are likely to impose.
Jackson believes defense could be his ticket to more playing time. He said assistant coach Bryan Gates showed him tricks to defend against wings who score in the post. Given Jackson’s lack of size, he’s listening to all tricks and advice on how to defend players like Anthony or George.
Joerger referred to the Thunder as a roster of “grown-ups.”
If that’s the case, the Kings are a collection of adolescents when compared to the Thunder.
“I’m not a big, huge guy,” Jackson said. “So going against a guy like Paul George or Carmelo Anthony, obviously they’re stronger than me, they outweigh me, so I have to know some of those little tricks to get around that. So for me it’s trying to learn every day, whatever coach and whoever else will help me, give me, that’s what I’ll take.”
Preparing to play lately might have been helped by coming off the bench, Jackson said. He can step on the court with a better idea on how to defend either Thunder star.
So if Joerger needs Jackson against Anthony or George, players who are far more accomplished than Detroit’s Harris, he’ll be ready.
“Honestly, coming off the bench you’re able to read and see how the game is being played, see how the refs are calling it or whatever,” Jackson said. “So it doesn’t change my mentality. It definitely gives me confidence to know coach feels like he can put me in whenever he needs to. So continue to get better and if I can do that, I’ll be happy with myself.”