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Hank Hersch
February 15, 1988
Mark Jackson, the NBA's 18th draft pick, is the No. 1 rookie
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February 15, 1988

A Surpassing Mark

Mark Jackson, the NBA's 18th draft pick, is the No. 1 rookie

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While some rookies are doing well playing limited roles this season—Indiana's Reggie Miller (11.0 points per game), Seattle wingman Derrick McKey (8.3 points), San Antonio's power post man Greg Anderson (4.8 rebounds) and the 5'4" mighty mite, Bogues (6.2 assists)—only a handful have become effective starters. Phoenix forward Armon Gilliam is averaging 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds after missing 27 games at the beginning of the season with a broken toe, and Golden State guard Winston Garland (12.0 points, 5.5 assists) got his chance to start when Chris Mullin left the Warriors for alcohol rehab on Dec. 19. Still, with the 1987 draft's No. 1 pick, David Robinson, serving the first of his two required years in the Navy, the New Yorkers—Smith and Jackson—have clearly been the class of the freshman class.

Smith, who missed 11 games because of a broken finger, is outscoring (13.7 to 12.0) and outshooting (47.9% to 43.6%) Jackson but trails him in assists (10.0 to 6.7), steals (2.54 to 1.2) and exposure. Jackson has won two of the three Rookie of the Month plaques awarded this season.

Nobody predicted so much success so soon for Jackson, but he's now way ahead of some of the more celebrated first-round draftees. The Nets' Dennis Hopson (the No. 3 pick) and the Clippers' Reggie Williams (No. 4) started for their teams early in the season, but each of these swingmen has shot less than 40% (and Williams is now on the injured list). It hasn't helped that they're on lousy teams and that neither seems comfortable on the floor. But the strongest candidate for Disappointment of the Year honors is Murphy, who was chosen just ahead of Jackson. He showed up at Portland's training camp out of shape, has at times been 10 to 12 pounds overweight, missed the first five weeks of the season with a stress reaction in his right foot, and was suspended for three weeks for failing to comply with a diet and training program ordered by the team. Through last week he was averaging 3.6 points in 41 minutes in his seven games.

So much for the No. 17 pick. As for No. 18, every game promises more wondrous passing feats. Jackson's presence has made a better player of Ewing, who is receiving passes—though not always catching them—the likes of which he hadn't seen in his two previous seasons with the Knicks. "It was comfortable playing with Mark right off the bat," Ewing says. Indeed, it was Jackson's self-assuredness on the court that gave the Knicks' brass the confidence to unload veteran playmakers Rory Sparrow, who was traded to Chicago, and Gerald Henderson, who was waived and then signed by Philadelphia. "It was evident, from day one, that when Mark stepped on the floor, we were a better team," Pitino says. "He made everyone else better, and that's rare for a rookie." Says Jackson's backcourt partner, Gerald Wilkins, "Mark came in and took over like he knew where to go, where to be, how to do it and when to do it."

Against the Hawks, the Central Division's first-place team, Jackson is matched against All-Star Glenn (Doc) Rivers, the kind of guard Jackson admires—unselfish, steady, a pro's pro, much like Jackson's boyhood idol, Walt Frazier. "He wasn't as flashy as Earl Monroe, who'd come down spinning, taking fadeaway jump shots," says Jackson. " Frazier was doing the job. I could see that as a youngster."

While Jackson's game has some Clyde-like qualities—the quick hands, the upright alertness, the cool—his style is all his own. He's a talker, for one thing, always exhorting teammates. He's also unflappable. "He's the type who could go oh for 12 and then want to shoot the game-winner," says Jack McKinney, the former Laker and Pacer coach who scouts part-time for the Clippers. In the half-court game, Jackson mainly patrols the perimeter, from where he can hit the jumper, whip an inside pass or burst toward the basket. "There's a difference between passing and delivering," McKinney says. "He delivers." When Jackson opts to penetrate, he holds on until the last, most perilous instant, taking the extra dribble to draw the defense to him, then resumes his drive or dishes to a cutter. "Great instincts," McKinney says. And when he has the ball in the open court, anticipation builds in the Garden. He'll pass blind, behind his back or backward, to the wing or toward the basket, or he'll fake any one of those and do another—or come up with something completely new. "He's absolutely fabulous on the break," says McKinney.

In the third period against Atlanta, as Jackson begins a rush upcourt with Knicks on both his flanks, he has already imagined how the play would develop. "As soon as I get the ball, it's sort of like I take a picture of where everybody is, who looks like they're busting out of the lane, and I just have a sense of where they'll be," he says. It's easy to imagine the wheels turning inside his closely cropped noggin (the source of his nickname, Chuckie, for Charlie Brown) as he arrives at the top of the key. As the two Hawks defenders retreat to protect the hoop, Jackson pauses and rocks back slightly, drawing them outward a step or two and giving his wingmen a little more time and space to dart toward the basket. With an alarming suddenness, Jackson throws a righthanded bounce pass through the defense to Wilkins, who gathers it in for a dunk, gets fouled and makes a three-point play. Jackson's bit of divine invention gives New York an 82-75 lead.

On defense the frisky Knicks trap and scrap; when they have the ball, under Jackson's guidance, they play with poise. With New York ahead 105-99 and 1:06 to play, he's fouled. At the line, he goes into the odd preshot ritual he has performed since he was a teenager. He extends his right arm toward the basket and sights the hoop between his thumb and forefinger, which are held about half an inch apart. "Someone told me just to visualize the rim and the ball going in," Jackson says. He misses both shots, which is unusual for him; he's a 70.3% shooter from the line.

The Knicks hold on to win 110-102, for one of the 15 victories they've had in 23 Garden games so far this season. (They were a wretched 1-20 on the road at the All-Star break and stood fourth in the Atlantic Division.) While Rivers finishes with 13 points and 10 assists in 31 minutes, Jackson plays 43 minutes and gets the first triple-double of his career—11 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds—and the first by a Knick in three seasons. The New York press corps descends on Jackson afterward. There are questions about why he's so much more productive at home, an allusion to a recent suggestion by a writer that Jackson's assist totals were being padded at the Garden, a charge that Bootsy Dunn, a Knicks' stat man for 20 years, hotly denies. (The controversy fizzled on a subsequent road swing, when Jackson outdished Magic Johnson 16-8 and the Kings' Smith 12-5.) The hint of homerism is bugging Jackson, but he tells the assemblage with a smile, "Now you'll start questioning my rebounds."

This guy's a natural. It's as if Jackson were the Big Apple's gift to itself. He makes his fellow New Yorkers happy, his Knicks teammates happy, even the press happy. Now all he has to do is hope that the Knicks can land a few more players as talented, comfortable and forward-looking as he is. "If we played every game at home," Jackson tells the press, "we might be the champions." You've got to hand it to him. He's still dreaming.

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