Jackson Comes Into Her Own

It was clear to reporters that it was a different Lauren Jackson that reported to the Storm’s training camp in early May. Jackson had changed her hair color (to blonde), bulked up and tanned during a long off-season in Australia that saw her take two months off from basketball because of a stress fracture in her right shin. That Jackson’s attitude was a little different, perhaps more relaxed, was no surprise. During her rookie 2001 season, Jackson was the Storm franchise, called upon to be the savior at the tender age of just 20 after being the first selection in that year’s draft. Last year, Jackson had the aid of another number one pick, Sue Bird, but with Bird a rookie was still expected to carry the team.

This year, Jackson reported to a team that had Bird coming off of an All-NBA performance; Kamila Vodickova, having established herself as one of the league’s better centers; and new acquisition Sandy Brondello, signed as a free agent to take some of the scoring load away from Bird and Jackson. In addition, in Brondello, a long-time teammate on the Australian team, and free agent pickup Tully Bevilaqua, Jackson had teammates who could help her feel more at home thousands of miles away from Australia.

Jackson has become the WNBA’s leading scorer.
Jeff Reinking/WNBAE/Getty
With the pressure off, it’s little wonder that Jackson has thrived so far during the 2003 season. After starting the year slowly, making just 13 of her first 44 shots, Jackson turned it up when the calendar turned to June. With Bird hampered by chondromalacia in her left knee, Jackson has stepped into the role of go-to player for the Storm. During the month, Jackson has averaged 21 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. She’s shooting 49.6% from the field and an even 50% from three-point range. She’s led the Storm in scoring in seven of eight games. Jackson gives a great deal of the credit to Brondello and offensive improvement from holdover small forward Adia Barnes. “Those players need to be guarded. Teams can’t double-team as much because all the players are shooters.” Another important addition has been new Coach Anne Donovan. As Donovan knows a thing or two about playing the post, Jackson believes Donovan’s helped her establish an inside-out game. “With Anne being an inside player, she’s helped me go in a little bit,” Jackson says. “She’s really helping my post game a lot.”

This season has been precisely the kind of performance expected from Jackson since the moment she first suited up for the Storm. While Jackson had an excellent rookie season, averaging 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and finishing as the runner-up to Jackie Stiles for Rookie of the Year, there were early roadbumps. The Storm’s struggles, as the team finished Jackson’s rookie season just 10-22, were one. Homesickness was another. “I get a little homesick every now and then,” Jackson told WNBA.com that year. “Everyone's been really cool and nice here, really, but it's not the same as being at home when you've got your own fans and your own family.”

Year two saw the Storm and Jackson make clear progress. After Jackson missed the first four games of the season with a sprained ankle, it took some time for her and Bird to become comfortable playing together and complementing each other’s games. Once that happened and the ankle stopped hurting, Jackson took off in the second half of the season. The Storm followed suit, winning seven of its last nine games of the season to produce the first playoff berth in team history.

In the playoffs, Jackson was able to confront her arch-rival in the WNBA, Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie. Leslie’s and Jackson’s rivalry dates back to the 2000 Olympics, when Jackson accidentally tore off Leslie’s hair extension in a game between Australia and the United States. Since then, the two have battled furiously in their matchups, a rivalry that has grown to encompass their entire teams. Still, there’s no doubt that the focus is on Leslie, the league’s former MVP, and Jackson, a potential future one. Last year, Jackson and the Storm weren’t experienced enough to take down the eventual champion Sparks. With Jackson averaging just 11.5 points in the two games, the Sparks swept the Storm out of the playoffs.

Jackson has effectively balanced playing inside and out with the help of Donovan.
D. Clarke Evans/WNBAE/Getty
The same was true earlier this season, with Jackson shooting three of 15 and getting called for a technical in the Storm-Sparks meeting on May 30. When Bird went out late in the game because of her injury, Jackson was unable to step up and provide the offense the Storm needed, allowing Los Angeles to emerge with a 79-77 victory in overtime. Things were different in the teams’ nationally-televised rematch just three weeks later. This time, it was Leslie who was called for a frustration technical. While Jackson struggled with her shot again, she contributed nine rebounds and three blocked shots as the Storm handed the Sparks their first loss at home by a 69-67 score.

More than a third of the way through the WNBA’s season, Jackson’s name is littered throughout the league’s leaderboard, with the listing of categories she ranks in the top twenty in taking up nearly the entire screen on Jackson’s WNBA.com playerfile. She ranks in the top ten in no less than 26 different categories, including the important ones. Jackson now leads the WNBA in scoring with 19.4 points per game. She’s sixth in rebounds (8.6) and seventh in blocked shots (1.7). By the league’s efficiency rating, Jackson ranks second on a per-game basis, behind only Washington’s Chamique Holdsclaw. Per-minute, no one ranks ahead of her.

Despite those impressive statistics, Jackson ranked a disappointing fifth in the last All-Star voting results. While that’s of little importance to her – “Those sort of things I don’t really think about,” Jackson says. “I just go and play every game. All the little things don’t really bother me that much. I just want to win, basically” – it’s a mystery why the talented, witty 22-year-old hasn’t captured the attention of WNBA fans league-wide. Not having played college in the United States could be part of the problem, but Jackson has been playing in the WNBA for three years now. Fans should know who she is. From a marketing standpoint, Jackson has also been slow to gain recognition. Unlike Bird, she’s neither featured in the WNBA’s “This is who I am” commercials nor publicized nationally with American Express spots.

Jackson’s relatively low profile can’t last for long if she keeps putting up the numbers she has so far this season. It almost goes without saying that the league’s coaches will vote Jackson to her third-straight All-Star game, and if she and the Storm keep playing as they have, Jackson will be a strong contender for MVP after finishing 10th in voting for the award last season. Defensive Player of the Year is another possibility, despite the fact that Jackson did not receive a single vote for the award last season after finishing third in the WNBA in blocked shots. Storm play-by-play announcer David Locke wants to make sure she’s considered this season, discussing on the air during recent games starting a campaign on Jackson’s behalf. Jackson’s casual response? “Whatever.” Better that Jackson leave the hype to others and focus on playing the game. It's been an excellent combination so far this season.