Despite slipping to second round, Frank Jackson awaits opportunity in thin Pelicans backcourt

<p>Frank Jackson could earn playing time right away in New Orleans if Jrue Holiday leaves in free agency.</p>

Frank Jackson could earn playing time right away in New Orleans if Jrue Holiday leaves in free agency.

NEW YORK—Before Thursday night, Duke had sent nine freshmen to the NBA Draft, each of whom was selected in the first round.

This year, it appeared the pattern might continue. Jayson Tatum went third to Boston and then Portland took Harry Giles at No. 20 before shipping him to Sacramento—the first time a Blue Devil one-and-done did not go in the lottery.

But Frank Jackson waited.

Dressed in a stylish maroon suit, he sat patiently in the stands at the Barclays Center with his parents and agent by his side. And although the Alpine, Utah, native did not go in the top 30 selections, he did not have to wait any longer than that.

With the cameras and lights finally shining on him, Jackson strode to the stage as the 31st pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to open the second round. Although he put on a Charlotte Hornets hat, the 6-foot-3 guard knew he would be heading instead to the Big Easy, joining All-Star big men DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Jackson probably had not hoped to fall out of the first round, yet when he took to the podium in Brooklyn, you could not wipe the smile off his face if you tried.

“I’m super excited to be in this situation,” Jackson said “I’m part of the NBA. People can expect me to be a fierce competitor and someone who can lead a team and get out and defend—play my game.”

As Jackson finished his lone season in Durham, it appeared he was just beginning to find his game. Once fellow freshmen Tatum and Giles returned from injuries in December, a scorching start for Jackson cooled—he scored in double figures only five times from Dec. 6 to Feb. 22.

That paved the way for an explosive finish, however, as he averaged nearly 15 points in the Blue Devils’ last nine contests before ultimately deciding to jump to the NBA.

Even in a short stint with Duke, Jackson developed a connection with Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who praised his “combination of athleticism and fearlessness” in a press release Thursday night.

“He’s been tremendous from day one,” Jackson said of his former coach. “[He] has really supported me throughout this whole deal and tends to give me his words of wisdom. But for the most part, he just wants to be there and to know that he cares for me.”

So where does Jackson fit in with New Orleans?

With the Pelicans shipping their 2017 first-round pick and last year's No. 6 overall pick to the Kings in a trade for Cousins, New Orleans desperately needs backcourt threats. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday is a free agent this summer, and if he elects to leave the Pelicans, Jackson could slide into a big role.

Perhaps the more interesting wrinkle will be that Jackson now joins another former Blue Devil in New Orleans—Quinn Cook.

Cook, a captain of Duke’s 2015 national championship team, dominated the NBA Development League with scoring averages of 19.6 and 26.0 points per game in the last two seasons, respectively, before signing with the Pelicans late last season. He will play the 2017-18 campaign for $1.3 million before becoming a free agent next offseason.

The two made it to the NBA in different ways, but now they are teammates on a team that scuttled to a miserable 7-17 start last year and finished 34-48. But with a revitalized backcourt and a lethal frontcourt pairing that has a combined seven All-Star appearances, New Orleans is not that far off from turning things around.

And the Pelicans’ newest member is already excited to get to work.

“Those are two of the best bigs in the league,” Jackson said of playing with Cousins and Davis. “It's going to teach me a lot. It's going to allow me to play with those guys and just learn. I'm looking forward to it.’

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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