By Joe Scalzo
In late November, in just the fifth game of his Southern Illinois career, Desmar Jackson made one of those plays that left his coach wanting to pull his hair out ... just before it stood on end.
The Salukis were tied at 54 with Fresno State in the final minute, and Jackson took his time meandering around the 3-point line, ducked under a 6-foot-7 forward and shot an off-balance 3-pointer that fell in with 13 seconds left.
It wasn’t a great shot.
It was a game-winner.
“He has an incredible offensive pace, which absolutely drives me nuts,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said in The Southern Illinoisan. “I’m serious. He’s slow. He’s methodical. No one rushes him. He’s the last one off the bus. The last one on the practice floor. The last one to eat. The last one in the shower.
“He’s just got that pace to him, and you know what? That’s pretty good in a moment like that, that you’ve got that pace, because you’ve got a head coach that doesn’t even relate to that pace.”
Warren Harding coach Steve Arnold can relate — to Hinson.
“He’s probably the most talented player I’ve ever coached as far as basketball is concerned,” said Arnold, now the Raiders’ football coach. “He’s very special, but he has to take the game seriously.
“The times we had a problem with Des were when we weren’t playing someone high-caliber because he’d go through the motions. But when the lights came on ...”
Jackson is a bit of an enigma, a player who thrives in the spotlight on the court but, like 49ers wideout/former Harding standout Mario Manningham before him, shies away from it off the court.
He’s a bit of a homebody — “There’s definitely no place like home,” Jackson said — who chose to leave Ohio for Wyoming, then Illinois, to pursue his NBA dreams.
And he’s a self- described basketball addict who chose to sit on the bench for a year to fulfill NCAA transfer regulations.
“That [sitting] was very tough,” said Jackson, who spoke by phone from Carbondale, Ill., on Tuesday. “That was my first year having to sit out, ever. It was not easy, but I knew I had to stay focused and get ready.”
Jackson leads the Salukis (7-5) in scoring (15.5 per game), assists (2.4) and steals (2.25) and is second in both rebounds (6.2) and blocks (10 total). But he’s also first in turnovers and fouls, and his defense has bugged Hinson who, like Arnold, knows how good Jackson can be and won’t settle for anything less. In addition to Jackson’s pace, Hinson has criticized his 3-point shooting (which is up to 40 percent) and his defense (he told him before one game that he had 30 seconds to get into a defensive stance or he was coming out).
“Yeah, I’ve got to stay in my defensive stance, work hard and try not to let my man beat me to the middle,” said Jackson, whose 6-5 frame, albatrossian wingspan and fluid athleticism make him a potential nightmare for opposing guards. “I’m getting way better.”
Jackson played his first two seasons at Wyoming, leading the Cowboys in scoring as a sophomore (14.6 per game, fifth-best in the Mountain West) while surprising some in Warren who felt he wouldn’t last that far from home.
“A lot of people said he shouldn’t go to Wyoming, but I know he needed to get away from everyone,” said Arnold. “He needed to grow and mature, and that coach really recruited the heck out of him.
“One of the things I tell all my players is they need to be adaptable, and Des was able to adapt. And it was a huge change for him to go to SIU and sit out and not be able to play.”
Jackson opted to transfer after head coach Heath Schroyer was fired following the 2011 season. He followed Wyoming assistant Anthony Stewart to SIU, then chose to stay in Carbondale when Salukis coach Chris Lowery (and, by extension, Stewart) got axed after the 2012 season.
While the transition hasn’t been seamless — over the past year, Jackson was cited for speeding, driving without a license and driving without a seat belt and charged with stealing a bicycle — Arnold said he’s seen growth.
“I’m very proud of how much he’s grown,” Arnold said. “But he still has some growing to do.”
Some of that growth is physical. Jackson is built a bit like a praying mantis, but he said he’s bulked up to 185 pounds to deal with the pounding of the Missouri Valley. He’s also put in the time off the court and said he’s about 70 hours away from a degree in University Studies.
“I’m sure a lot of people didn’t think I could do that,” said Jackson, who would be the first in his family to get a college degree. “That would be great for me in the long run.”
Jackson’s ultimate goal is the NBA. Jackson could be the first player from Harding to get drafted since Monti Davis in 1980. Anyone who saw him carry the Raiders to the Division I state semifinals in 2009 knows it’s possible.
“He still has to get physically stronger, take the weights seriously, and work on his jumper,” said Arnold, who talks or texts Jackson every week or so. “Once a coach, always a coach, so I’ll watch him on TV and tell him, ‘Would you take care of the ball, please?’
“He needs to take this offseason and get his body right and get better. Sometimes when you’re so good at something, the game comes too easy. If he takes it seriously, he’s got a shot at the NBA.”