Jackson ‘a beast inside’ for Judges
WINCHESTER — A quick scan of last year’s boys basketball area statistical leaders paints a pretty clear picture of where Cameron Jackson stood as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Jackson certainly looked like someone who should dominate whenever he stepped on the court, but his name appeared just once on the final list of the top local players.
Not for scoring, where his 7.1 points per game didn’t even put him amongst the top 25 in the area, nor for rebounding, where at 3.8 per game he was just fourth on his own team.
No, Jackson’s greatest statistical accomplishment last year came in the category of field goal percentage, where he ranked fifth amongst the local leaders at just over 60 percent (75 for 124).
For all intents and purposes, Jackson was an afterthought last season.
A year later the Handley junior is the reigning Region II, Division 3 player of the year.
Averaging a team-best 17.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, Jackson has gone from being a role player off the bench to becoming the focal point for a region championship team that will take on Bruton in a Group AA, Division 3 state quarterfinal game at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday at James Madison University.
Surprising? Not for those who know him best.
“I’ve seen his potential ever since he got here and he’s just never stopped working,” said senior Jake Rudolph, who’s played with Jackson since elementary school.
“He knew he’d have to wait his turn [last year] behind Derek [Dowrey] and Kyle [Murph], but he never stopped working. He’s not always been one of the best players, but nobody was going to outwork him. And to see it all paying off for him now, I’m so proud of him.”
It didn’t hurt that Jackson grew a couple inches between his sophomore and junior year, and judging by his size 18 shoes he may not be done, or that he moved from the bench to the starting lineup with the graduation of Dowrey and Murph.
But the biggest improvement in Jackson’s game has come by way of exactly what Rudolph admires most about his teammate — hard work.
“Cameron has made great strides since he’s been here,” said Handley coach Tommy Dixon. “I was showing him a little clip of him shooting the ball and running some drills at the beginning of his freshman year and you would not believe the difference.
“Cameron has worked really hard to develop his game and he does everything he can to improve himself.”
It’s evident in his play on the court.
Towering over most opponents, it’d be easy for Jackson to simply rely on his size advantage to score, but he’s never been one to rest on his laurels.
Working hard in the offseason to develop a mid-range jumper to complement his array of post moves, Jackson is not your typical big man who loafs up and down the court and isn’t comfortable more than five feet from the basket.
He can defend in the open court, moves well without the ball and regularly finds the open teammate when the double team comes. He runs well for his size and possesses surprising athleticism and finesse.
Dixon said that the best way to describe his junior center is that he’s not a big man who happens to play basketball, but rather a basketball player who happens to be big.
“He handles the ball very well for his size and he probably has the best hands on the team, which isn’t something you usually see for a kid that big,” Dixon said. “Even if he was six inches shorter, he’d be a good basketball player.”
Not that the Judges are hoping that he shrinks any time soon.
The 6-foot-8 Jackson is the biggest player Dixon has ever coached in his 27 years at Handley and he’s been one of the best this season.
He scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Clarke County in the Judges’ third game of the season and he’s been putting up monster numbers ever since.
He scored 25 and pulled down 16 boards against Harrisonburg on Dec. 28, went for 26 and 15 against Skyline a week later and had 17 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocks in a loss to Sherando on Jan. 15.
He totaled 22 rebounds against Kettle Run, went for 20 points and 19 rebounds in the Northwestern District Tournament championship game against James Wood and had a double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds the Region II, Division 3 quarterfinals against Fluvanna County.
“He really is just a beast inside,” said 6-foot-5 senior Darion Robinson. “I think without him we wouldn’t be the same team. He frees up our guards and provides a lot of opportunities for our offense. It’s just huge to have him.”
Jackson’s play with Robinson has been a big reason for the Judges’ success this season. It’s taken awhile to develop, but the two big men have formed a potent high-low combination that’s wreaked havoc on opposing defenses, especially in the playoffs.
With Jackson drawing double teams almost every time he touches the ball, Robinson usually has room to roam and the duo have made a habit of playing off each other.
“Personally, I wasn’t really looking for him as much as I should have earlier in the season. But now that I am it’s been really successful and we’re not going away from it because we’re seeing when we do that it’s hard for teams to stop us,” Jackson said. “When me and him are on and we both have double-doubles and we’re both looking for each other, that’s when we dominate.”
After going up against similarly sized front lines in Western Albemarle and Loudoun Valley in the region semifinals and finals, the Judges will have a decided height advantage against Bruton and possible semifinal opponent Spotswood.
A year after only being expected to contribute in limited minutes off the bench, Jackson will be expected to dominate in the paints on both ends of the court.
They’re the kind of expectations that could cause some players to crumble under the pressure. For Jackson, though, this is the moment he’s been waiting for.
“I knew I could do this, it was just a matter of keeping my head down and working hard,” Jackson said. “I knew I had the ability, it was just a matter of if I worked hard enough and if we played together. We’re ready for this.”
— Contact Kevin Trudgeon at email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1