Wojo: Pistons’ Jackson tries to live up to his No. 1

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson didn’t play against the Nuggets, but he has embraced the role of the Pistons’ floor leader.

Auburn Hills — Chauncey Billups wore the number like it meant something, No. 1, the guy in charge. He was Mr. Big Shot without acting like it, the smooth facilitator on the Pistons championship team. But on celebration night, it’s easy to forget the taxing trek from high draft pick to NBA vagabond — and finally to a home on the Palace floor and a jersey in the rafters.

Billups was honored by the Pistons Wednesday night, and with former teammates in attendance, eyes followed No. 1 to the ceiling. The halftime ceremony was happily nostalgic, similar to the Ben Wallace event last month, a justified reward for a franchise great. Rip Hamilton gave a heartfelt speech about brotherhood and selflessness and The Palace put on its standard stirring show.

And now, eyes will return to the No. 1 currently on the floor, the new guy entrusted with the point-guard legacy. It goes from Isiah Thomas to Billups to Reggie Jackson, who’s trying to find his way and show the way. This night wasn’t about Jackson, who’s been here less than a year, but if the lineage is to continue, it will become about him.

Jackson was scratched due to illness moments before the game, which compounded a depleted roster and contributed to the 103-92 loss to the Nuggets. That was too bad, because he has been chasing Billups for a while, since Jackson’s days as a high school star in Colorado, where Billups was one of the state’s prep legends.

Jackson hasn’t followed the same rocky path as Billups, who was the third overall pick in 1997 and played for four teams before joining the Pistons in 2002. Jackson was drafted by Oklahoma City at No. 24 in 2011 and showed riveting bursts of potential. He also has perks that Billups never got — an $80-million contract and a potentially dominant All-Star in Andre Drummond.

The payoff isn’t here yet, with the Pistons at 27-27 and on the fringe of the playoff picture. But the commitment is, and that’s where these stories usually start. Stan Van Gundy gambled and chose Jackson, just as Joe Dumars once chose Billups. Jackson has the talent and energy and is hungry for the responsibility, but nothing comes pain-free.

Full circle

During a tough loss the other night to Toronto, Jackson went over to Van Gundy and gave him a reassuring pat, and said it was a gesture of solidarity for two guys that are “hip to hip.” Jackson and Billups aren’t connected like that, but they’re joined at the number, and at a familiar juncture.

“I knew what happened with Chauncey, him finding a sanctuary here in Detroit, a second home and a second opportunity and a chance to really thrive,” Jackson said before the game. “You’re looking for somebody who wants you. It’s crazy to think it’s the same spot he got his opportunity, the same jersey, we grew up in the same state. It all comes full circle. When I see him, it just brings a smile to my face.”

Billups: 'I just wanted to be a champion'

Jackson smiles and sweats easily and so did Billups, whose shimmering baldness famously belied his pressure-time cool. Billups always was among the league’s most popular players and is happy to pass along his wisdom. For more evidence of his insight, go read his superb “Letter to My Younger Self” on The Players’ Tribune website.

Billups planned to fly with Drummond to Toronto for the All-Star game and figured they’d do a lot of talking. He has spoken with Jackson several times, and sees the glimpses.

“I’ve been a huge fan of his,” said Billups, who’s fashioning a TV career on ESPN. “I’ve been watching and enjoying his success for a long time, since high school. I love the way he’s playing the position right now.”

Billups played it differently, with poise and strength and hard-nosed defense. Jackson could become a sped-up version of that style, if he can hone his leadership and crank up the defense. It’s difficult when you’re young, starting for the first time in the league. Jackson, 25, was a reserve most of his three-and-a-half seasons in Oklahoma City. Drummond is 22, a raw double-double machine who has a lot of growing to do.

Generations

The 2004 champs with Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince won’t be duplicated, and that’s not Van Gundy’s goal. That was a team deftly constructed by Dumars and tied together by Billups and his own joined-at-the-hip coach, Larry Brown. Those Pistons played withering defense and meshed selflessly, something this group isn’t close to matching.

“It’ll never happen again how it happened for us,” Billups said. “It was an anomaly, so many guys who had been thrown away in other situations. Most of us weren’t superstars that could carry a franchise, but collectively, we found by putting it together and doing it the right way, we could all be stars.”

It’s different now, but at least it’s trending in the right direction.

“I think Andre is gonna be a superstar, he hasn’t even scratched the surface yet, scary to say,” Billups said. “The most important position in this league is point guard, and you got a good one with Reggie, and you got a phenomenal coach. They’re on the right path, and now it’s gonna be about your best players, how fast can they learn to be leaders? And what is the culture going to be?”

Great question, yet to be answered. After a recent practice, Jackson and Van Gundy spent extra time watching game tape, just the two of them, and Jackson was the last player to leave the court.

Van Gundy reiterated that it takes time, and not long ago, a guy named Billups needed time. Before that, Thomas ran the show — his No. 11 jersey went to the rafters long ago — and he was there Wednesday night, along with the predecessor to all of it, Dave Bing. When Thomas took the microphone, he pointed to the other backcourt stars and spoke to the crowd.

“This is what tradition looks like, this is what it feels like,” Thomas said. “Numbers, banners, generation, generation and next generation.”

Regeneration is still needed here and it starts where it usually starts, at the point. Patience is something Jackson has to understand, even as he desperately tries to speed up the process.

“I feel like I’m working through it, but it is tough,” said Jackson, who leads the team with 19.1 points per game. “I still have moments where I take two steps forward and take a hop back. It’s an honor to wear the same jersey and follow in the same footsteps. One day I’d like to leave a similar legacy, and change the culture back to something the fans of Detroit are accustomed to.”

Culture is created over time, often during tough times, and must be appreciated to be preserved. The No. 1 in the rafters can serve as a handy reminder to the No. 1 on the floor, and the responsibility that comes with the number.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski