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July 16, 2010
Whenever Jackson takes off his jersey, his bare chest reveals a tattoo with the message "King of Memphis." He got the ink several months before he signed with his hometown school.
Jackson said he didn't mean to come across as boastful, nor was he trying to announce his future college months ahead of schedule. He just wanted to showcase his dedication to the place where he grew up.
It just so happened that the move also offered an obvious hint of where he'd be spending the next few years.
"It's a figure of speech," said Jackson, the No. 18 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. "I just wanted to have that mindset -- not that I'm better than anyone but just to carry myself like a king."
His brilliant high school career gave him that opportunity and made him a bit of a local celebrity. Jackson led Memphis' White Station High to Class 3A state title as a junior and a state runner-up finish as a senior. He earned Class 3A "Mr. Basketball" honors as a senior.
"He figures out ways to get the ball in the basket," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's got a great first step, he's explosive athletically and he's fearless. He's not afraid to take it in there against the bigger guys.
"He can score at all three levels: He gets to the rim, is a nice pull-up guy and will make the 3-point shot if you play off him."
Now Jackson is interested in leading his Memphis back to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. Jackson is part of a heralded freshman class that includes three of the nation's top 18 prospects. Memphis' recruiting class ranks second in the nation, behind only Kentucky.
Jackson has a keen understanding of what a return to glory would mean to his hometown. His decision to play for the Tigers didn't exactly catch anyone by surprise.
"I love the city of Memphis," Jackson said. "I always dreamed of going to Memphis. I watched the Penny Hardaway commercials, and when Derrick Rose went here and the program came back up, that really made me want to go there."
He wasn't alone.
The Tigers' recruiting class features two other local products: 6-7 center Tarik Black of Ridgeway High and 6-4 shooting guard Chris Crawford of Sheffield High. Black was ranked 54th and Crawford 72nd in the Rivals 150.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner made it a priority to protect his home turf.
"We really worked to get the best local kids," Pastner said. "That's what we wanted to do. There are so many good prospects, so many good high school coaches, so many good [local] summer-league coaches that I just felt this was really an opportunity for us."
Jackson arguably was the best of the bunch. He ended his White Station career with 3,451 points to rank fourth all-time among Tennessee high school players.
His ability to play with passion and to score in bunches has been evident since grade school. A town that grew up watching Jackson's rise is savoring the opportunity to see him showcase his skills on a bigger stage.
"He's going to come in and be a leader," said Eric Robinson, his AAU coach with the Memphis Magic. "He's going to be a scorer. He's going to be a contributor. He's going to be a basketball player."
Jackson certainly ought to feel comfortable playing at home, but he still could face a major adjustment as a freshman. Although Jackson is the 18th-ranked player in this class, he was rated behind two other prospects with point-guard skills who also signed with Memphis.
Will Barton, a 6-6 shooting guard from Baltimore, is the No. 11 prospect in the nation. Jelan Kendrick, a 6-6 small forward and an exceptional ballhandler, is ranked 15th. Jackson and Crawford give Memphis four top-100 freshmen who could play in the backcourt. The class also includes Antonio Barton, a 6-2 guard not included in the Rivals150.
How will Pastner find a role for all of them?
"That's going to be the biggest challenge," Meyer said. "How do they find that chemistry? How much time do they have the ball in their hands? Crawford's more of a catch-and-shoot guy who doesn't have to control the ball, but all the other guys are used to controlling the basketball. They're just going to have to adjust.
"All three are very talented and smart guys. I assume they will figure it out, but that will be the challenge going into the season.''
Jackson already has begun making the adjustment. He has won raves for his preseason work ethic. Jackson realizes he probably won't be scoring 30 points a game the way he did in high school, and he has prepared accordingly.
"I expect him to really have a good year," Pastner said. "He's got to be a good leader. He's got to be able to play well without scoring a bunch of points. He's got to be a really good distributor. With his upside and with the way he works, I expect nothing but for him to have a very, very good year. So far, he's been just an absolute A-plus in his summer work. I've been very proud of the way he's approached things."
Pastner's relationship with Jackson helped bring the five-star prospect to Memphis. When John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky after the 2008-09 season, it cost the Tigers an opportunity at a recruiting class for the ages. DeMarcus Cousins had committed to Memphis, Xavier Henry had signed with Memphis and John Wall was strongly considering Memphis when Calipari made his move. Cousins and Wall followed Calipari to Kentucky, while Henry signed with Kansas.
But the past year has shown that Memphis can continue to land elite talent without Calipari. Jackson said he became more likely to sign with Memphis after Pastner replaced Calipari.
"Me and Coach Pastner have a better relationship," Jackson said. "He learned from great coaches -- Lute Olson, John Calipari. I know he knows a lot. I watched him a lot this year. He knows what he's doing. I'm really excited to play for him. ? When we met, there was a bond right away. He doesn't sugarcoat things. I like a coach like that."
Jackson knows he will enjoy playing for Pastner. And he savors the opportunity to play so close to home.
Jackson feels a kinship with the Memphis fans because he's one of them. He understands what they've been through. Jackson knows the heartbreak Memphis felt after the loss to Kansas in the 2008 national championship game because he was equally crestfallen.
"I'm still crushed over that because I wanted it to come back to Memphis, but with all the NCAA stuff [the vacating of the Final Four appearance], it would have never counted anyway," Jackson said. "Everything happens for a reason.
"I think we'll bring one here. I've got a strong feeling."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.