A Utah high school basketball star returns home, hoping to jumpstart his NBA career

Former Lone Peak High School standout Frank Jackson has returned to his home state, joining the Utah Jazz organization — albeit with their G League affiliate — in a bid to get back into the NBA.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Jackson, a former Lone Peak High School star, is hoping a stint with the Salt Lake City Stars (the Utah Jazz's G League affiliate) can help him get back to the NBA, where he has played more than 200 games over the course of a five-year career.

He hasn’t lived in Utah for a bunch of years now, so when Frank Jackson recently returned, he was surprised to see how different things were from what he remembered.

Having grown up around Lehi, he said he was shocked to see the Point of the Mountain area just “booming,” with so many new businesses opened, so many new buildings having gone up that he barely recognized the place.

The early days of his return have been marked by an ambivalent tug-of-war between the familiar and the different. But then, that’s just as much about him and where’s at — mentally and emotionally, that is, rather than just where he happens to be living.

“Just to be back, it feels comfortable, but it’s definitely new,” Jackson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I feel like a new person. I feel like I’ve been through a lot of, you know, just life.”

That’s true enough.

Arguably the most heralded high school basketball prospect ever in the state of Utah, Jackson left Duke University after his freshman season. He was drafted by the Hornets in 2017, but traded immediately to the Pelicans, then wound up missing his entire rookie season anyway with a foot injury. Upon the expiration of his rookie contract, New Orleans opted not to keep him around.

Sacramento Kings' Bogdan Bogdanovic, center right, competes for an offensive rebound against New Orleans Pelicans' Frank Jackson, right, and Pelicans' Jaxson Hayes, center left, as Kings' Alex Len, left, looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

In December of 2020, he thought he’d found a new gig with the Oklahoma City Thunder … only for them to waive him 17 days later. After that, he had to settle for a two-way contract with the Detroit Pistons. After impressing them, he signed a nonguaranteed multi-year deal — only to again be released at the end of the 2021-22 season. This past September, he signed a training camp deal with the Phoenix Suns … and was released less than a month later.

Finally, in October, he was signed by the Utah Jazz organization … albeit to play for their G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

Still, what some might view as a humbling demotion, he’s instead choosing to view as yet another chance.

“Honestly, I think a lot of things have been aligning in my life, and I feel like this is a great opportunity and I’m just stoked to be here,” Jackson said. “But it was a pretty easy decision, you know? They were happy to have me, and I’m super excited to be here.”

Going from chartered flights to “Wanna Get Away?” fares on Southwest is, indeed, quite palatable when your professional basketball career is hanging in the balance.

What could be a frustrating and miserable experience — constantly being on the fringes, always having to prove and re-prove himself at every stop — has instead made Jackson fairly philosophical about his decidedly unique profession, and his place within it.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Lone Peak's Frank Jackson (15) yells during the 5A boy's basketball tournament at the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah Thursday March 3, 2016. Copper Hills is winning the game 33-22 at halftime.

“Every year you kind of learn how to ride that wave a little better, because it’s not always linear like we would hope and imagine,” he said. “But I think that’s the beauty of just life itself — it teaches you so many things.”

So then, what does Jackson need to learn in order to get back to the league?

New Stars head coach Scott Morrison, who spent last season as head coach of the Perth Wildcats in Australia’s NBL, but who was an assistant under Brad Stevens the previous four years with the Boston Celtics, concedes he wasn’t ever super-familiar with Jackson’s game before, but once his signing with the Stars became a distinct possibility, the coach broke out a bunch of old game film.

He put together an edit for Jackson filled with both the things that got him into the league in the first place, as well as some of the things he needs to get better at in order to get back.

“I wouldn’t say there are ‘weaknesses,’ but sometimes it’s just about the fit — you’ve got to find a roster that needs what you have,” Morrison said. “Other times, maybe there’s some things you can improve.”

In Jackson’s case, the coach said those improvements can mostly come in the form of getting beyond his one-dimensionality.

To this point, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Jackson has mostly been only a scorer, and not a particularly efficient one at that. For his career, he’s averaging just 1.0 assists per game, and only 2.1 assists per 36 minutes. By focusing attention on the guard’s ability to make reads in the paint, Morrison said the Stars aim to show “that he can play the point guard position full-time if that’s what a team needs.”

Still, they do want him to be “a good bucket-getter” for the team — but that also will require some tweaks to his game. Jackson is a career 42.2% shooter from the floor, and just 33.3% from beyond the arc. While he had an outlier performance of 40.7% on 3.8 attempts from 3 during his 40-game stint with Detroit in ’20-21, the following season he cratered all the way down to 30.8% on 5.3 attempts per game.

According to Morrison, it’s not so much that Jackson is a bad shooter, but rather that he too often takes suboptimal shots.

“Sometimes guys are better shooters than their numbers say because of shot selection — and not that Frank takes a lot of bad shots, but I think he takes some tough ones,” Morrison said. “I want to try and put him in position where we have good spacing around him, guys are in the right spots, so when he gets into the paint and help collapses on him, he can make that right decision and highlight his playmaking in addition to his scoring.”

Notwithstanding those areas where there’s room to improve, there’s actually quite a lot about Jackson that Stars and Jazz personnel see as worth investing in.

Notably, Stars general manager and Jazz director of pro personnel Marquis Newman said he was “thrilled” to bring Jackson in for one simple reason:

“The most appealing thing is Frank is an unbelievably talented player. We view him as an NBA-level talent,” Newman said. “… He’s a guy that we view we can build this team around, and he can help a lot of the young players with his experience in the NBA, and can help kind of guide the group and be a leader for us as well.”

The key, he believes, to Jackson’s future success is finding consistency.

New Orleans Pelicans guard Frank Jackson (15) passes the ball in front of Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, March 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

And a big component of that will be the consistency they are able to offer him in terms of playing time.

“I’m just excited for this opportunity to kind of get back and really start playing again and competing consistently, because it can sometimes be tough, especially in the league with so much talent [that] there’s nights where you don’t even get to play,” Jackson said. “So this would be good to just get back on track and kind of align myself with who I am and what I can be.”

Some of his former NBA teammates now also in the Jazz organization are excited to see him get another chance.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who overlapped with Jackson on the Pelicans in 2019-20, called him a “great dude on and off the court,” who always cheered on teammates, and who “helped me get through my rookie year, so I’m thankful for him and the relationship that we have, [and] just the kind of person he is.” Kelly Olynyk, who was with Jackson in Detroit in 2021-22, echoed those sentiments, calling Jackson, “A great guy, super-high character guy, very upbeat, positive, loves the game, loves to work.”

Jackson, meanwhile, is well aware that if he’s to get back to the NBA, it’ll have to be the work he does now that gets him there. Because in this league, nothing comes easy.

“This is a cutthroat, competitive business, and you have to learn how to block certain things out and keep on chugging along,” he said. “… [But] I’m a hooper, I’m a ballplayer, I know how to play this game, I know how to play it at a high level. So I’m just happy to kind of put it all together and just continue to kind of do my thing and compete.”

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