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Rested Reggie Jackson returns with renewed joy for game

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Summer generally is the most critical time of the year for NBA players. Many split their time between fine-tuning their games, playing pick-up ball and taking much-needed vacations to rejuvenate before things ramp up again in preparation for training camp in the fall.

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson spent the offseason binge-watching TV and reading as he rested his knee.

Pistons' Reggie Jackson didn’t get to enjoy his summer the same way.

Because of the tendinitis issues with his left knee dating back to last season, Jackson stayed off the court, instead working with Pistons physical therapist Mark Cranston and medical staff, adhering to a stringent 16-week protocol to help strengthen his knee and ease the wear-and-tear on his body.

That basketball inactivity was almost as painful for Jackson as the knee was last season, when he estimated his health was at about “75 or 80 percent” after he missed the first 21 games and coach Stan Van Gundy shut Jackson down for the final nine games of the season.

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“It’s been a very different and difficult summer for me. I love to be on the court and feel like I’m getting better when I’m putting shots up, but I guess (resting) is a different way to get better,” Jackson told The Detroit News last week. “I have to get better physically by taking less mileage on (my knee) and taking time off. It started to get fun to not touch a ball.”

Jackson’s dormancy was difficult, both mentally and physically. The most he was able to do was put up shots off one foot or take set shots — no cuts, no hard running, no jump shots.

Sixteen weeks is a long time to be in a basketball purgatory — almost like Han Solo being frozen in carbonite — but Jackson tried to take his mind off basketball by binge-watching TV shows and movies and by reading.

One of his selections was an old classic that turned into a fun read. That helped bring some of the joy back for him.

“It was interesting to me to read Tom Sawyer. I had never read it and you hear about it a lot,” Jackson said. “It reminded me about shenanigans and everything each kid gets into and it was fun to read a book like that and reminiscing about my childhood and taking my mind off basketball. Not touching a ball actually will help me come back.”

The pressure of having to produce while not being at full strength started to weigh on him. Then, when he was shut down for the final nine games, as the team was teetering on its last legs of playoff contention, were the toughest.

“Last year — I’m not going to lie — I started dreading it and it became very mentally taxing to put so much pressure on myself to do for the team and I just couldn’t get it done last year,” Jackson said. “That was mentally beating me up so to just get away from the game for last nine games and having the entire summer, I got to fall in love with the game again.

“I got to miss it and once I started to miss it, I got the itch for touching a ball and the itch started to get larger and larger and I found myself finally smiling, thinking about basketball and dreading not playing and asking if I’ll ever be back. It was good for me and helped motivate me.”

Jackson was back at Pistons media day on Monday afternoon, flashing his familiar smile and having the joie de vivre back. He’s ramped his activity back up and is doing more basketball activity, preparing as if he’ll be ready for the first game of the regular season, on Oct. 18, opening the new Little Caesars Arena.

Reggie’s return will come with some stipulations, though. Van Gundy said he has worked with Pistons head trainer Jon Ishop to develop a phased return that doesn’t do too much too quickly.

“I feel it, but I haven’t really played much; I’m still ramping up to that point,” Jackson said last week. “When I get on the court and play against my teammates, the more confident I’ll get and the better I’ll feel. During workouts, I can feel the burst back.”

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But he’s making progress toward returning to the 2016 form — where he played near an All-Star level — that helped the Pistons get to the playoffs. That doesn’t seem to be too far off.

“The goal is to be better than even that; the goal is just to have that burst. Once I have that burst, I can sharpen up all the tools,” Jackson said. “I’ve shot enough shots in my life and I can continue to rep them in practices and each day just to get reps and feel good about them.”

Van Gundy said Jackson played some 5-on-5 last week, a good sign that he’s ramping up toward a full return.

“The biggest issue right now is conditioning. As you would expect, he’s in the shape of someone who hasn’t played in six months,” Van Gundy said. “Conditioning is an issue for him and we’ve got to approach getting him back in game shape without overly pounding on his legs.”

At least initially, that means Jackson will have a minutes restriction, which will progressively increase through the five preseason games and into the regular season. Van Gundy said that could mean going from 12 minutes to 18 minutes to more, but the whole plan isn’t sketched out, especially for back-to-back games.

The next eight days of two-a-day practices — Jackson will only do one per day — will help flesh out the rest of the plan moving forward.

It’s a more measured approach to Jackson’s recovery than last season, when he had a platelet-rich plasma injection in October and missed the first 21 games. Although the Pistons went 11-10 during that stretch, they were playing better in the last few games before Jackson’s return.

Then things started to go downhill, as Van Gundy seemed to want to get Jackson back into the lineup and playing at a high level all too quickly.

“The part I didn’t give enough attention to last year is that there’s more than just the injury healing when guys are coming back,” Van Gundy said. “The injury has to heal and getting in shape. The player has to gain confidence that they’re back to where they are and they have to get into a playing rhythm.

“(Last year), Reggie did two practices with us and we threw him back into the action.  He’s trying to find his way out there with a team who was playing really well and we put him into an unfair situation.”

Tuesday begins training camp — and summer vacation is officially over — but Jackson’s journey back is still a work in progress.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard