Imagine having to run the marathon without training at all.
Stephen Jackson doesn’t have to imagine. He’s living it right now.
Until Wednesday night’s game in Boston, Jackson hadn’t stepped on an NBA court since April 6, his final game as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He had no training camp. He had no preseason. He had no offseason team workouts. Heck, he had no teammates with which he could do any of those workouts. Offseason solitude, it’s real.
Now, Jackson is thrust into the middle of a marathon, one in which his Clipper teammates are already on the fourth mile. They spent weeks before the race training, gradually working their ways toward marathon shape. A two-mile run. Then a four-mile run. Then an eight-mile run. And they kept going until they knew they could pace those 138,435 feet to the finish line.
Jackson, though, hasn’t had that gradual build. He hasn’t trained with a two- or four- or eight-mile jog. He hasn’t drank any of those gross-but-good-for-you protein shakes. He hasn’t jammed wheatgrass shots down his esophagus. But he still has that marathon to run and, unfortunately for him, he has to get in shape while his feet are already on the pavement.
“Everyday my legs are feeling better and I’m doing things that I know I can do,” says Jackson, who played his second game as a Clipper on Thursday night against the Nets.
Through 72 hours, anything positive is progress. He’s going to get better. He won’t stay this tired, this out of game shape, or this immobile for long. But he needs time. It’s all about time.
“It’s going to be a week or two before I get there, but I’m pushing myself,” Jackson explains.
But here’s the thing: it’s not going to take a week or two. It rarely does.
Let’s say Jackson vacuums up his slightly protrusive gut within the next 14 days. Let’s say his legs are completely back within that time period. Let’s say he can run the floor, play defense, move laterally, and play with energy as well as a 35-year-old Stephen Jackson possible could. It still won’t take one or two weeks.
It’s been only two games, and Jackson has already made a difference on the defensive end with his flashes toward bigs in the post and his defending wings on the perimeter, but offensively, we haven’t seen much. And there’s a reason for that, one that Allen Iverson might not love to hear: practice.
Jackson has been a statue off the ball in his two games with the Clippers. He hasn’t moved at all. But how could we possibly expect him to? He doesn’t know the entire offense. He doesn’t know all the plays. With the Clippers signing him in the middle of a seven-game road trip, he hasn’t had one practice yet. And he won’t have a real practice for at least another few days. Not one.
Offense is about integration and it’s damn near impossible to integrate on the go. It’s a process, one that takes time and recognition. So for the first two games, we’ve seen Jackson set up camp along the three-point line, not move much, and wait for the ball to come to him – and that’s mainly because he has no other choice. For now, he’s playing glorified pickup.
“I’m not familiar with all the plays,” Jackson clarifies. “I’m a spot-up shooter so sometimes I will be in the corner. As I learn plays, I think I’ll be more involved. So right now, I’m just focusing on defense and the plays that come [to me].”
We haven’t seen Jackson running off screens. But we might soon. We haven’t seen Jackson in isolation. But we might soon. We haven’t seen any plays run for Jackson. But we might soon.
A basketball team needs familiarity, but for now, Jackson is an untrained stranger, a not-quite-in-shape runner without any time to get ready for the biggest race of the year. It’s still early enough that he has time to learn the plays, lose weight, and become an actual factor. Eventually, it’ll happen. The only question remains, on what mile will he be when he finally starts to feel comfortable?