There was no denying the sheer athleticism and basketball ability of Lakeem Jackson, even as a freshman. Players who start 30 of 31 games and play all over the floor, excelling in a number of areas, do not get there by accident.
But as the season went on, the questions began -- why can't this guy shoot?
"Only way you can deal with it is just to work at it," Jackson said last year. "Game situations, hit or miss. They go in or they don't. They come out, it's next play."
The criticism was a bit unfair. Jackson had the highest field-goal percentage of any regular player, his .505 number higher than everybody but Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes, who were each gone by December. That was better than Devan Downey, better than Sam Muldrow.
The reason for the criticism came from the free-throw line. Jackson was a horrifying 16-of-59 (.271), and in the late season, looked like a sheep separated from his mother when he toed the stripe. Some of the misses were so comically bad that even Jackson had a hard time not laughing.
Once the season ended, he began working on it. He wanted to improve his weaknesses, and did so by locking himself in the gym this summer. Jackson worked on shots from all over the floor and took 60 free throws per day, refusing to leave until he made at least 26 of every 30-shot session.
As the 2010-11 season dawns, the games are still three weeks away.
Jackson is ready now.
"Last year, I wasn't really much of a shooter," Jackson said on Thursday, during his turn at SEC Media Days. "Since I've been in the gym working on it, I feel it's been added to my game."
Jackson played all over the floor last year, coach Darrin Horn taking advantage of the freshman's savvy, despite his youth. A player who seems to be at his best when playing on the wing, but still able to drive to the hoop, Jackson was asked to play power forward a lot last year, especially when Archie and Holmes were lost.
He had some great games -- at Kentucky, a game where USC was competitive but petered out in the end, Jackson was stellar. He scored 16 points and was constantly battling for rebounds.
"Lakeem Jackson single-handedly (kept) us in the game on the offensive glass, at 6-4, against five first-round draft picks," Horn pointed out. "He can definitely do that, but at the same time, I think his strength is going to be getting him out on the perimeter and to use his athleticism, his ability to drive the ball."
Horn has always praised Jackson's athleticism but realized that the team's depth this year may free Jackson to do what he naturally does. Jackson is at his best when he can get the ball on the 3-point line and be able to create, either driving just inside the line for a stop-and-pop jumper or take it to the hole.
"He's just a basketball player," Horn said. "Primarily, he's going to be a wing guy. Hopefully we won't have to play him at the four like we did a whole bunch last year."
Jackson said he was ready to play anywhere if it could help the team. While he offered a grin and a slight laugh when asked if that included point guard or center, he also sounded serious enough that there wasn't much doubt he could do it if asked.
"It doesn't matter to me," he said. "Just out there playing ball. I don't think there's a certain position for any player, as long as you just go out there and play basketball. If they throw me down there on the post this season, it wouldn't really matter to me."
The shooting, he says, is better.
Jackson's commitment to improving himself ranks higher than that.
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