Rejuvenated Jackson Ready for 2007

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Kevin Pelton, | May 15, 2007
The shin injuries that have plagued Lauren Jackson throughout her basketball career were unable to keep her from being an All-WNBA First Team selection in 2006. They couldn't keep her from finishing in the league's top five in scoring, rebounding, blocks, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. However, the constant reminder that she was cursed with an injury that might never heal took something much more precious from Jackson: happiness.

Somewhere, between the practices she had to watch from the sidelines and the time she spent on the bench because she was limited to 32 minutes per game, something changed for Jackson. Basketball, the game to which she had devoted her entire adult life, stopped being fun.

"I think when you look at her face now, you can see how healthy she is. Hopefully, it will stay that way the rest of the season."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty
"The whole season last year, it was just a drag," recalls Jackson. "Every day, I was like, 'Oh, I can't practice today,' or, 'I better go get more X-rays.' Then the plantar fasciitis flared up. I think it got to a point where I was like, 'Do I really want this? Is it worth it? Am I better off just resting the season and playing in Europe?'"

Teammates and coaches sensed that Jackson was not herself, but there was little to be done. How could they help? "Donate my shins?" cracks Sue Bird.

Following a busy off-season, a very different Jackson has returned to Seattle. She is in the best shape she has been in to start a season in years. She is healthy, reporting that she did not miss a single practice overseas and did not have her minutes limited whatsoever. The carryover effect is that she is happy, having undergone what she describes as a rejuvenation mentally.

"You can see it in her face - she's really happy," says Bird.

"Lauren's a professional. Injuries, for everybody, are a frustrating thing, but Lauren never let on. She played like she was 100% healthy - probably the hardest worker on the floor at all times. You never really knew that she was as hurt as she was. But I think when you look at her face now, you can see how healthy she is. Hopefully, it will stay that way the rest of the season."

"It's not fun when you're always dragging around some sort of injury, and for years I was," offers Jackson. "Now for me it's a lot more fun being out there knowing that I'll be able to walk after the game or I'll be able to practice tomorrow or, if I do something bad, I'll be able to work on it. It's really been a bonus for me."

Jackson is somewhat at a loss to explain the difference in her health. There has been talk of orthotics that have helped relieve the pressure on her feet and shins, and Jackson thinks it may have to do with playing through the off-season or her body maturing. For the most part, she is not interested in wondering why.

"Everything has just ... I don't know ... fallen into place," she says, quickly adding, "It's about bloody time."

At the same time Jackson's shins were improving, she was enjoying one of the most fulfilling off-seasons of her career. That started in September, when Jackson led her Australian National Team to victory in the FIBA World Championships in Brazil, a huge breakthrough after runner-up finishes to the U.S. in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics.

"I was the captain of the first national team to win a gold medal," says Jackson. "That was definitely my best achievement. The WNBA Championship was fantastic, but there's nothing like winning something like that for your country. I can't say that I ever thought it would happen in my lifetime, so I'm pretty happy about that."

Back in Australia after the World Championships, Jackson found herself in the rare position of having time off without that rest being accompanied by rehabilitation from an injury. She moved from the WNBL in her native Australia to play in South Korea, giving her a few months off to enjoy herself before the later start of the season.

"There's nothing like winning something like that for your country. I can't say that I ever thought it would happen in my lifetime."
Mark Nolan/Getty Images
"I went home and I spent some quality time with my mom and my dad," Jackson says. "Then I did things I've never done before, like I went and traveled with Sue and Diana (Taurasi), which was fun. I've never taken time to look after myself, and I didn't have any injuries, so I didn't feel guilty doing anything. I had a great time. I think that kind of rejuvenated my passion and made me want to go to Korea and definitely get fit and healthy."

In Korea, Jackson had the opportunity to focus on basketball in a way she has been unable to with the Storm or in Australia. None of her teammates and coaches spoke any English and she went unrecognized on the streets of Seoul. With the exception of a handful of fellow foreigners, including the other WNBA stars, like Washington's Alana Beard, playing in the WKBL, Jackson was alone to clear her mind.

After falling in the WKBL Finals to a team led by Los Angeles newcomer Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Jackson signed a contract to join Bird and Taurasi in Russia with Spartak just in time for the Russian Superleague Playoffs. After the isolation of Korea, Jackson found herself living with Bird and Taurasi in a very different but equally enjoyable experience that was capped by winning the Russian title.

"Korea was just fun," says Jackson. "None of my teammates spoke any English, my coach didn't speak any English. All I had to do was play. It just made me feel so much more confident about my game. I really enjoyed it. There was no drama, there was no hassle, there was nothing. It was purely about basketball. It was great. It really made me happy over there.

"Then when I went to Russia with the girls, I had a ball. I had the best time of my life in Russia. It capped off a pretty awesome couple of months there. Now I'm here again and I feel like this year is going to be a very good year for the Storm."

STORM SEASON PREVIEW is previewing the 2007 Storm season:
Monday: Storm Has All the Pieces in Place
Wednesday: Check back for a look at the Storm's improved bench and the Eastern Conference.
If Jackson is healthy, it should be a very good year. Given that Jackson has been a perennial MVP candidate and one of the league's most dominant players no matter what injuries she has fought, the prospect of better health raises a sobering question: How good can she be?

"It is hard to imagine she can keep getting better," says Donovan, "and yet it's not a surprise that she does keep getting better because she works hard at her game, she never takes a rest at all. She's constantly working at improvement. The fact that her body is slimmer and she's feeling healthy ... she's got some good basketball in front of her."

The growth in Jackson's game last season was, to some extent, masked by her limited minutes. Projected to the 34 minutes she played when healthy, Jackson averaged 23.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while shooting 53.5% from the field (easily a career high) and 37.7% from the three-point line. If Jackson keeps up that performance in more minutes, stays healthy and the Storm contends in the Western Conference, another MVP award could be in the offing.

To really evaluate Jackson's 2007 season, however, another metric may be more important: smiles.

"I'm at that age where basketball, for me, it's got to be fun," concludes Jackson. "I've accomplished pretty much everything I could accomplish in this sport other than winning a gold medal in the Olympics, so it's definitely about fun now. A lot more smiles, hopefully."

Jackson's smile seems to engulf her entire face in pure, child-like delight. It is contagious. If Jackson is smiling, expect plenty of smiles throughout KeyArena.