For most of the year, Frank Jackson has managed to stay out of the spotlight as the fourth member of Duke’s hyped freshman class.
Even as he started off the season with eight consecutive double-digit scoring performances, much of the focus was on the rookies on the sidelines—Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden—and when the trio would return.
But now, with the regular season drawing to a close, Jackson is asserting himself as perhaps the most important newcomer for Duke’s postseason hopes.
For the second straight game, the freshman guard was the spark plug for the Blue Devil offense—and this time, it was enough to carry Duke to a 75-70 win against Florida State Tuesday night in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score implies. With junior Grayson Allen still hampered by an ankle injury, Jackson slid into the starting lineup for the first time in more than three weeks and just the fourth time in league play.
And after halftime, he made his presence felt with a dominant stretch that, by now, should look familiar to Blue Devil fans. Jackson poured in 13 points in the first 4:23 of the second half with a flurry of jumpers and blow-by drives, nearly doubling Florida State’s output and giving Duke a 19-point lead that allowed the team to coast the rest of the way.
“Frank played incredible today, he was huge for us—especially the offensive explosion he had in the second half,” Allen said. “He’s started games before, so I just told him to explode like he does when he comes off the bench. He really is an explosion of offense and defense—he just attacks. I tried to tell him, when I was on the bench, what I was seeing out there, what he could do more of, but it really wasn’t much—he was doing a great job out there.”
Jackson produced similar single-handed runs during nonconference play against Kansas and Michigan State, showing a flair for the bright lights that should serve him well come March. After leading the Blue Devils with 16 points in Saturday’s loss against Miami, the Alpine, Utah, native notched a career-high with 22 Tuesday, and looks like he is starting to put together all the pieces he flashed so tantalizingly earlier in the year.
“He played like a senior tonight. He’s no freshman out here. You can’t say that anymore,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “He’s a player and he played like a veteran tonight. And I’m so proud of him.”
For much of the season, Duke has struggled to find a point guard to initiate the offense, and Jackson is becoming increasingly comfortable bringing the ball up. The rookie had one of his worst games of the season against the Seminoles in January, when he missed all five of his shots from the field and looked overmatched by Florida State’s physicality.
The Seminoles came right back at the Blue Devils with their aggressive man-to-man defense, but this time Jackson showed he was up to the task. No matter who Florida State tried to stick on him—and its 12-man rotation ensured Jackson saw no shortage of fresh bodies—he was able to blow past his defender with ease.
“He’s improved a lot. He’s getting a lot more comfortable out there. He’s becoming really poised with the ball and he’s really handling the pressure well,” Allen said. “That’s huge for us and we obviously have belief in him because we’ve seen him do this multiple times. He had a lot of experience at the beginning of the year, which I think really helped him.”
In Allen, Luke Kennard and Matt Jones, the Blue Devils have a trio of other backcourt options who do most of their damage with their shooting strokes.
Jackson has proven himself as an adequate marksman—he’s hitting 37.0 percent of his 3-point attempts and knocked down 3-of-4 Tuesday—but his electric quickness off the dribble allows him to penetrate into the lane and break down opposing defenses in a way that his teammates cannot. Allen’s injury woes have him moving a step slower late in the year, and Jackson’s explosion gives him another gear off the bounce.
“When he’s like that, he makes our team even better, and it’s really good to see,” Kennard said. “He’s put in tons of work. He’s one of the hardest working guys on the team, and it’s really showing.”
With Allen’s health up in the air and no guarantee that he will regain his top form this season, Duke may soon face a difficult tradeoff of minutes for the established veteran and the charging rookie. Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski touted Jackson’s competitiveness and toughness after Tuesday’s win, qualities that are vital for a team that has shown a tendency to play close games against just about any opponent.
“I’m just trying to stay aggressive, I’m just trying to create for my teammates. I’m playing the full 40 minutes hard and trying to make every play count,” Jackson said. “I know Coach is going to put me and my teammates in situations where I can do some things.”
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