When Georgia Tech played Alcorn State Sunday afternoon, guard Tadric Jackson wore a bandage over his right eye. To coach Josh Pastner, it was an emblem of valor, a reminder of a cut that Jackson opened up by diving to the floor for a loose ball in practice.
“He had blood coming down and guys were clapping and wanted to carry him off like we’re the Super Bowl champs,” Pastner said. “Because he’s never done that. But that was a great step for him.”
Since Pastner’s hire in April, eliciting consistent effort from Jackson has been one of his top priorities, one often conducted at high volume on the practice court. Jackson is getting closer, and it is a significant boost for the Yellow Jackets, who play Georgia Tuesday night at McCamish Pavilion in their annual in-state showdown.
“Tadric’s good enough to be an All-ACC player,” Pastner said last week. “He’s talented enough to be a high-level guy.”
Jackson hit his peak thus far for the season – and probably for his career – against VCU Dec. 7, when he scored a career-high 24 points with no turnovers in leading the Jackets to an overtime road win over the Rams. Prior to the game, Tech had been given a 10 percent chance of winning by the website teamrankings.com.
To Pastner, Jackson’s performance against VCU – easily the biggest win of the season to date – fed off his practice efforts leading into the game. Jackson played a season-low 10 minutes against Tennessee Dec. 3 in an 81-58 defeat to the Volunteers, benched by Pastner for a lack of effort and production. Pastner told Jackson after the game that he would remain on the bench if his effort didn’t improve.
Jackson ramped up his practice energy in the three practices prior to the VCU game. Pastner said that Jackson told him the night before the game that his legs were exhausted because he had never practiced that hard in his life. To Pastner, the results against the Rams were predictable.
“How he played is how he practiced,” Pastner said. “If he doesn’t practice well, he’ll just sit the bench and he won’t play and he won’t be able to show what he can do.”
Jackson was aware that his effort level wasn’t as high as it could have been.
“My energy level was high (against VCU),” he said. “I just felt like I’d let the team down a couple games, haven’t been doing my part. It’s just been a wakeup call.”
The win over VCU – which has made six consecutive NCAA tournaments – gives a glimpse of what the Jackets can do, even in the face of widespread low expectations. Having Jackson consistently playing at the top of his game would ease scoring pressure and provide a spark on the defensive end. While standing only 6-foot-2, Jackson gets to the basket with quickness and strength and is probably the team’s best finisher.
Jackson has a scoring knack that, among his teammates, perhaps only freshman guard Josh Okogie shares. He showed it with five double-figure scoring games last season, all off the bench. However, he also had 14 games in which he scored two points or fewer, an illustration of his hot-and-cold tendencies.
His shooting percentage in the first two years was 32.2 percent and he shot 21.9 percent from 3-point range. The numbers this season are 48.7 percent and 47.6 percent, respectively.
“I know I can make the shots,” Jackson said. “I make ’em in practice, I feel like I can make ’em in games. I feel like, I miss a shot (in a game), I don’t dwell on it.”
He does need work from the line, where he is at 53.3 percent.
Pastner has driven the entire team hard to play with more effort, but has particularly been honed in on Jackson.
“It’s every single day, and he’s not the only one,” Pastner said. “But he’s getting it. To his credit, he understands, and you know what? He’s taking it. I’ve been hard on him. I’ve been very hard on him and I want to give him a lot of credit because he hasn’t talked back, he hasn’t played the victim, he hasn’t frowned, he hasn’t been down in the dumps. He takes it like a man and from there, it’s on him to produce from it.”
Jackson acknowledged that it’s up to him to continue to push himself.
“I just feel like I have to be a leader and be the best player I can be and help the team,” he said.
In practice, Pastner banishes players who aren’t playing with the requisite effort to leave the floor and get on a climbing machine under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Dan Taylor for a high-intensity burst before going back to practice. Jackson has incurred that discipline multiple times, but didn’t have it once in the three practices before VCU, Pastner said. Since then, Pastner has sentenced Jackson to sessions with Taylor, but has done so to the entire team at various points, he said.
Jackson has yet to start a game this season despite standing third on the team in scoring average at 12.8 points per game. It’s an incentive Pastner will continue to hold in front of Jackson until he earns it, Pastner said.
“I love him,” Pastner said of Jackson. “I see the goodness in him, but, I’ve said this to him before. My standard’s at a certain level for him, and I’m not lowering it. He’s going to have to meet me. That’s on him to meet me. It’s not me to meet him.”