SOUTH BEND – He was a "gotta-get guy" during the last recruiting cycle, perhaps one of the three most important prospects to sign with Notre Dame during coach Mike Brey’s first 13-plus seasons in South Bend.
Former Mishawaka (Ind.) Marian High guard Demetrius Jackson did a little of everything his senior season. The first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Notre Dame since Luke Zeller in 2005, the 6-1, 170-pound Jackson averaged 25.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.6 steals per game. He also became the all-time leading scorer in St. Joseph (Ind.) County history.
Weeks before graduating from high school and on the heels of a team-high four assists in the McDonald’s game, Jackson represented the United States at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, Ore. He then spent his final free week of what was an unbelievably abbreviated summer vacation practicing and playing with the Indiana Senior All-Stars.
By the middle of June, Jackson was just another teenager alone and away from home for the first time, trying to figure it all out as a college freshman. Hours after Jackson played in the annual Indiana-Kentucky Senior All-Star game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – the third NBA arena he’s played in since March – he was moving into his dorm room and preparing to begin summer school at Notre Dame.
Irish players spend almost all of their summers on campus before getting a brief break before the start of the fall semester. Then, they’re on campus nearly non-stop until April.
“It’s a difficult transition,” said Jackson, who studied calculus and theology during the first summer school session. “This is a higher level, but it’s good. It’s challenging every day, but it’s good for you.”
“What I’ve done so far hasn’t been that difficult, which must mean I’m getting better at it.”
Jackson knows well the Irish program. Having grown up less than 15 minutes from campus, the lightning-quick guard played plenty of pickup games with players in the program during his high school years. He attended many Big East games and was a post-game fixture in the Irish locker room lounge. The coaching staff, particularly assistant Anthony Solomon, the lead recruiter who tracked Jackson’s progress since his freshman year, became like family even before Jackson committed last September. Jackson’s commitment carried as much --- and maybe more --- weight than Zeller’s (who was a big get coming out of high school in southern Indiana), and than another former fellow Mr. Basketball and point guard, Indianapolis native Chris Thomas.
Still, the adjustment to being a college freshman wasn’t easy. During some times when the class work requirements slowed and the offseason conditioning eased, Jackson found his way back to his foster home in Mishawaka, if only for a few hours.
“I try to go home on the weekend to clear my mind, get some space and then come back and be ready to handle my business the rest of the week,” he said.
Jackson cherished chances to return home, but he didn’t immediately hand off his dirty clothes for his foster mother to clean.
“I’ve been doing my own laundry since 8th grade,” he said. “I actually prefer to do my own laundry. I don’t want anyone else doing my laundry.
“It’s nothing new for me.”
South Bend Friends
Back on campus and away from his foster family, Jackson turned to someone who has shared the same adjustment struggles – former AAU teammate and close friend Austin Torres.
Like Jackson, Torres grew up close to campus. His home in Granger, a South Bend suburb, is barely 10 minutes from campus. Torres' biological father is former Irish tight end Oscar McBride. A former standout at Mishawaka Penn High, Torres committed last fall to play for Central Michigan. But the more Brey scouted Jackson during the July AAU circuit last summer, the more he saw him play alongside the 6-7, 225-pound Torres.
Why not, Brey soon wondered, try to sign them both? Then he did.
Jackson and Torres will follow vastly different paths as freshmen. While Jackson likely will become a main-minute guy from the moment preseason practices commences, Torres is expected to follow a five-year plan similar to that of former Irish players Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott, as well as current players Jerian Grant and Tom Knight.
With a veteran front line and time needed to round out his game, there’s no need for Torres to rush his way into the rotation. Brey has counseled Torres to embrace his future role as an energy guy who can make a difference in games with key rebounds, follow-up dunks and hustle plays much like Chris Andersen does for the Miami Heat. The Irish may never run a single offensive set for Torres, but that doesn’t mean there cannot be a place for him in future rotations.
“I love to play basketball, so if I have to work to get to where I want to be, so be it,” Torres said. “I’m just worried about myself and my teammates and where I want to go.”
However their collegiate careers unfold, Jackson and Torres will forever be linked as the first two South Bend-area high school kids to play for Brey. They are the first players from the area to play on scholarship at Notre Dame since former swingman Pete Miller, who started his career as a walk-on but finished as a scholarship team captain in 1997.
Torres, who has more of an outgoing personality than the quiet Jackson, insists the quick transition from carefree high school senior to serious college student-athlete was easy.
“It’s not that scary; I like the freedom,” he said. “College is different. You’re in your own little world, your own little bubble. It just felt like I was going to camp for an overnight thing, and then I’m here for a week and it’s turned into reality.”
If they didn’t know the stakes are higher at the collegiate level, their first week of playing pickup with their fellow Irish teammates was a clear indication that they’re no longer in the Northern Indiana Conference, where both dominated at times last winter.
“It’s intense,” Jackson said. “It’s definitely more difficult – the size, the strength, the speed of the players. It’s physical, but it’s always been that way. I love competing.”
Jackson’s competitive side surfaced on the second day of Brey’s basketball camp in late June during the evening pickup session. Jackson was matched against the veteran Grant, who scored over him in a variety of ways. It didn’t come easily.
“He’s a great defender,” Grant said. “And he’s really quick.”
Undeterred by Grant going off, Jackson responded with several strong plays and passes of his own, which ratcheted up the intensity level. Summer suddenly felt like mid-winter.
“I never try to back down from anybody,” Jackson said. “I always try to compete. When the intensity picks up, I love it. I try to stay composed, play hard and get better."