Jackson all grown up and in control
Lauren Jackson can't control whether the Storm stay in Seattle after this season, or pack up for Oklahoma City or another geographically and culturally distant locale.
She can't control the aching shins on her 6-foot-5 frame, sources of such prolonged discomfort that merely maintaining tolerable pain becomes cause for celebration.
She can't control a calendar that leaves little room next summer for training with the Australian national team as well as playing her eighth season in the WNBA.
And she can't control what anyone else thinks of the way she lives her life.
But when it comes to the basketball court, Jackson is a control freak.
"As far as composure, she's as good as there is in this league," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said.
Three years removed from a championship, the Seattle Storm finds themselves in possession of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, in no small part due to cellar dwellers Los Angeles, Houston and Minnesota, who continue to make it difficult to fall any farther. Seattle is precariously poised between the potential of a team still within striking distance of current top seed San Antonio and the reality of hovering around .500 with more turnovers and fewer assists than its opponents this season.
That the otherwise inconsistent Storm are where they are at the moment is perhaps the best indication of exactly how well Jackson has played in her finest individual effort in seven impressive years in the league. But it's not the only indication.
Jackson leads the league in scoring (23.8 points per game), ranking with Minnesota's Seimone Augustus as one of just two players averaging at least 20 ppg. But of the league's top 13 scorers, a list that extends all the way down to Connecticut's Asjha Jones at slightly better than 15 ppg, only Jackson is averaging fewer than two turnovers.
Despite touching the ball as often as anyone who doesn't play point guard -- she also ranks second in the league in rebounds per game at 10.1 -- Jackson manages to balance aggression with recklessness better than any other player in the league.
If you're going to stop her, you're going to do it on her terms.
"Lauren to me, and I've always said this about her, her mental capacity to withstand contact and play through contact just is amazing," Seattle coach Anne Donovan said. "It's like no player I've seen before. Where other players will go into contact or go into a double- or triple-team and cough it up or maybe put up a poor shot, Lauren is going to draw rim and get to the free-throw line, or make the bucket and get to the free-throw line.
Points Of Reference
How the benchmark games of Seattle's Lauren Jackson and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi compare -- Jackson scored 47 on Tuesday night at Washington; Taurasi established the then-record on Aug. 10, 2006 at Houston:
Donovan isn't exaggerating about her star's ability to either score the basket or get to the foul line. Jackson doesn't escape turnovers by forcing bad shots; she's among league leaders in field-goal percentage (.517), 3-point percentage (.396) and free-throw percentage (.868).
Through the start of last weekend, Jackson's missed field goals, missed free throws and turnovers totaled 200, or exactly 10 such miscues per game. Among the nine other players in the top 10 in scoring, only Phoenix's Penny Taylor was better at 8.7 miscues per game. And the average of the nine other players was 11.6 miscues. So even compared against the very best the league has to offer, Jackson gives her team one and a half possessions more per game than her peers.
How does that math translate to the real world?
Seattle outscored its opponents by an average of 4.1 points through its first 21 games, or just slightly more than one and a half possessions worth of points.
Precisely because she made the most of the possessions she did have, Jackson was a viable MVP candidate in 2006 while playing on shins that caused her so much pain she could rarely practice or play the kind of minutes she was used to -- her 28.4 minutes per game last season were three minutes per game fewer than during any other season. But after passing on surgery that would have inserted a steel rod in her leg to stabilize the shin problems, she came back even better this season, having shed weight while traveling with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird during the brief break between last fall's championship and her stints in pro leagues in Korea and Russia.
"She lost weight this offseason," Donovan said. "She's really trimmed up, slimmed down, and I would imagine that has something to do with how light she is on her feet. But it definitely has given her a quicker first step, given her the ability to take the ball off the dribble a whole lot more than she did before. And the beauty of it is, she hasn't lost any of her strength inside.
"To really get inside and play physical and mix it up is a big part of her game, and being able to withstand the pounding, the double- and triple-teams and still be able to focus and play that way. My fear when she lost weight and came back slimmer is how she would withstand the contact, and she passes that test with flying colors."
Stretched out with her back against the bleachers and ice bags scattered up and down her legs after practice for a recent game against the Sun, Jackson looked like someone who might forever need a few extra minutes in the morning to convince her legs to begin another day. It certainly looked that way the next night as she slowly limped to the free-throw line with a grimace etched on her face, having tumbled to the floor after getting fouled on a baseline drive. But earning the wear and tear of the body of someone much older than her 26 years has come with similarly accelerated growth in other areas.
One of the signature names of the WNBA, and arguably the biggest international star in women's basketball given her Australian roots and overseas professional experience, she has accepted, and at times embraced, life in the global public eye.
"Earlier on, when she was a young'un and thrown into that spotlight, maybe she wasn't ready for all that media attention and how to handle the media," former Storm and current Australian Opals teammate Tully Bevilaqua said. "But you can definitely see over the years a maturity in Lauren in how she speaks to the media and deals with the public. You know, there are still times when as a player, when you're getting that constant attention, it gets a little frustrating because you want your own space. But I think she's matured now and has a handle on how to work the media and get her own space a bit."
That maturation is evident when she talks about the prospect of leaving Seattle, where she now owns a home, should the sale of the Sonics and Storm to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett lead to the WNBA franchise relocating elsewhere. Even if the Storm remain in Seattle next season, Jackson also faces a choice between playing in the WNBA or taking the summer off to train for the Olympics with the Australian national team. Just 17 and admittedly homesick when she first traveled to the Puget Sound as a rookie, Jackson now is a grown woman contemplating both career and comfort, not unlike a large segment of her generation in Australia and the United States.
"It weighs on my mind a lot. I want to be in Seattle, obviously -- I want to finish my WNBA career in Seattle," Jackson said. "If I'm not playing in the WNBA, or in Seattle, it's going to be a huge blow for me. I get better every year, I love Seattle and I can't imagine playing anywhere else. I'm very settled in Seattle, I'm happy there, I love the city and I've got beautiful friends there."
There is much that Jackson can't control, but if this season and her basketball career prove anything, it's that few are better at making the most of what they can control.
"I've never really gone by anyone else's rules," Jackson said. "I've just lived my life and tried to be the best person I can be. Some people don't like that; some people do like that. But to me, it just makes it easier to live life."Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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