In the second quarter of a late-March game at the Target Center, the Timberwolves' vaunted passing offense has gone flaccid against a bad Cleveland Cavaliers team, and Cavs guards Bobby Sura and Brevin Knight are maneuvering past the Wolves' Bobby Jackson for easy baskets at the other end of the court. Moments after the officials have granted Minnesota's request for a time-out, Jackson nonchalantly flips a shot toward the hoop on his way to the sideline. Bad idea. In the Wolves' huddle, coach Flip Saunders abruptly signals for Terrell Brandon to take Jackson's place. Jackson sulks his way toward the end of the bench, his deflated gait and disbelieving scowl spinning the scene into a passive-aggressive protest.
Exactly one week later in a tilt against Philadelphia, Jackson moves like greased lightning on a pogo stick. He guards Allen Iverson, the league's quickest player, better than anyone in the building, outjumps Philly forward Tyrone Hill (who at six-foot-nine is eight inches taller than Jackson) for a rebound, turns a nifty backcourt steal into a lay-up, and cans an assortment of jump shots that catalyze his teammates. Yet with the score tied in the game's final seconds, Saunders benches Jackson in favor of Anthony Peeler. Iverson proceeds to blow past Peeler, draw a foul on Kevin Garnett, and sink the free throws that cinch the Wolves' first loss in seven games.
On a team of extraordinary chemistry and well-defined roles, Jackson remains a beguiling enigma. Last year, overwhelmed by the multifaceted responsibilities borne by the point guard in Saunders's system, the converted college shooting guard was sucked into a vicious cycle of plummeting confidence and putrid play. During the off-season--both before and after the Wolves hedged their bets and drafted Will Avery to back up Brandon at the point--Jackson doggedly honed his ball-handling and court-recognition skills, working, as Saunders has said on numerous occasions, "as hard as any player I've seen."
While the sweat equity has produced dramatic improvement, it has not banished the inconsistency from Jackson's performances. When Brandon went down with an ankle injury in mid-January, Jackson keyed the Wolves to wins over Indiana and Utah, in the latter contest burning the great (albeit aging) tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone with a series of crunch-time lay-ups off the pick-and-roll. And when Brandon again sprained an ankle two weeks later, Jackson roasted (overrated) phenom Jayson Williams with double-figure totals in points, assists, and rebounds--a milestone of athletic versatility achieved by few players--in a win over Sacramento. As an added bonus, when Jackson finds a groove in his offensive rhythm, his more reliable defensive tenacity ratchets up another notch.
Just two weeks after his triple-double, however, Jackson had played himself into Saunders's doghouse with a pair of lackluster efforts in blowout losses to Los Angeles and Phoenix. Upon Brandon's return after the All-Star break, there was a three-week stretch when even the scant minutes as the backup point guard fell mostly to the woeful Avery. Trying unsuccessfully not to pout, Jackson complained that he hadn't been told the reason for his demotion. ("Lack of aggressiveness," Saunders replied, when reporters asked.) Meanwhile, the Wolves won eight out of nine games.
Part of Jackson's inconsistency this season can be attributed to distractions he has endured. He was among those implicated in the term-paper scandal at the University of Minnesota. (He maintains that his tutor typed papers for him but that he wrote them himself.) As a Gopher alumnus, he has been a crowd favorite throughout his tenure with the Wolves, and Saunders believes his play occasionally suffers during home games when he tries to justify the fans' adulation. More significant, with the Wolves having expended a first-round draft pick on Avery, Jackson knows there's a good chance he won't be re-signed when his contract expires at the end of the year, a lame-duck status that complicates his ability to adopt a totally selfless attitude.
By the same token, it's hard not to believe that the temporary promotion of Avery wasn't motivated at least in part by the Wolves' desire to give the rookie some seasoning and discover how much he might be able to contribute in the future. On that score, the results haven't been encouraging. Saunders claims Avery "plays the pick-and-roll more aggressively than any of our point guards"--which would be fine if he had Jackson's foot speed on defense and could punish opponents who cede open jump shots to him on offense. Instead, he is frequently beaten off the dribble (as is Brandon) and, despite a recent rise to mediocrity with his jumper, is converting less than 30 percent of his shots.
One revealing barometer of the Wolves' point-guard performances is a chart Saunders keeps that tracks the plus-or-minus point totals of Minnesota and its opponents when individual players are in the game, a system more commonly used to determine player values in hockey. Right now Brandon has the highest plus-point margin of anyone on the team, including Kevin Garnett, an indicator of how well Saunders has been able to orient the Wolves' ball-movement offense around Brandon's passing virtues. Conversely, Avery has the largest overall minus figure in the ballclub. As might be expected, Jackson tends to yo-yo from large pluses to large minuses from game to game and has wound up almost dead-even.
As the Wolves enter the stretch run for a higher playoff seeding and then begin postseason play, Jackson's impact on the team's fortunes figures to rise, for a number of reasons. First, the injury-prone Brandon has already logged more than 35 minutes per game and Saunders may want to substitute for him more often in order to preserve his effectiveness. Second, as games assume a larger importance, the premium on defensive intensity--Jackson's forte--increases. Third, Jackson has the ability to change the tempo of a game coming off the bench--another advantage when a team's season is on the line. Finally, in past playoff appearances, Saunders has shown a proclivity for introducing new wrinkles that confound scouting reports and bump opponents out of their comfort zone. One attractive option in this regard would be to pair Jackson and Brandon in the backcourt for brief periods during games, enhancing the Wolves' quickness and ability to trap more effectively on defense.
Bobby Jackson is about to become an intriguing X factor at the high point of Minnesota's 1999-2000 campaign. And as he plays what are likely to be his last games in a Timberwolves uniform, the question lingers: Which Bobby Jackson will show up?
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