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Persistence helped Washington State land Dishon Jackson, the top center commit in program history

UPDATED: Thu., April 9, 2020

PULLMAN – Occasionally, the topic would surface after practices at Cal State East Bay. Derek Walker, a guard for the Pioneers in the late 1990s/early 2000s, would needle his friend and teammate Josh Jackson, the most prolific shot blocker to come out of the Division II college in Hayward, California.

“After practice I’d say, ‘If you ever have a kid, man, let me coach him,’ ” Walker recalled.

Josh Jackson, a 6-foot-7 post who swatted 158 shots in four seasons at Cal State East Bay, and Shavaki Jackson, a fourth-team Parade All-American who, at 6-4, emerged as one of the top rim protectors for Cal in the late 1990s, gave birth to a baby boy not long after their respective college careers ended.

Nearly 16 years later, conversations between two college teammates came full circle when a 6-6 freshman named Dishon Jackson showed up on Walker’s doorstep at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo, California.

“Before he was born, me and his dad were trying to plan this out. All before he even got here,” Walker said. “… Look how it turned out.”

Now that Jackson’s career is over, Walker can confidently call him the most accomplished player the private Catholic school has produced. Just in case that assertion needs a background check, these are Jackson’s credentials: one state CIF State Division IV championship, claimed as a freshman at SPSV in 2016-17, and two North Coast Section Division III titles, in 2017-18 and 2019-20. The only time the Bruins missed out on any of those crowns was when Jackson missed most of the season with an injury.

He’ll soon become the first boys basketball player from SPSV to sign with a Division I program straight out of high school.

“We talked about it in 1999, 2000,” Walker said. “So when eighth grade came up, I was a little nervous. But me and Josh have a good relationship and he trusts me with his kid, and very thankful that he did.”

Walker was fortunate to work with Jackson the past four seasons. Soon enough, that privilege will belong to Washington State’s Kyle Smith. The SPSV big man committed to the Cougars on Saturday, making him the ninth-rated recruit in school history, per 247Sports. He’s set to become the first four-star center to sign at WSU and the first four-star prospect to join the Cougars since Que Johnson.

Jackson’s commitment unquestionably gives fans another reason to place confidence in Smith’s rebuild at WSU, but subconsciously they might also wonder how it manifested for a school that seldom gets in the living room of a four-star recruit.

This time last year, the coach had only three players on his roster, as CJ Elleby tested the NBA and others tested the transfer portal. So how did the Cougars go from that to fending off Arizona, California, Saint Mary’s, Nevada and New Mexico for the 17th-best recruit in California?

Because by the time Jackson was ready to pick a school, the pageantry of Arizona, the pedigree of Saint Mary’s and the proximity of Cal couldn’t compete with the persistence of WSU.

“Washington State never really gave up on me … they always saw what I had,” Jackson said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Once they saw me, once they got in contact with me the first time, they never stopped. No matter what happened to me. They were always checking up on me, making sure I was doing good. Just always in my corner, recruiting-wise.”

As a junior averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, Jackson was prepared to lead SPSV into a late-January duel against Salesian Prep, at the time the third-ranked high school team in America. A few days before, Jackson suffered a meniscus tear, shelving him for the biggest game of the season and throwing a wrench into his college recruitment process.

As Jackson spent the next six months rehabbing, most of the programs that had expressed interest in the big man began to retreat. Most, but not all. The Cougars kept their foot on the gas, contacting Jackson a few times every week. One of Smith’s assistants attended a July AAU event in Seattle, Jackson’s first action since the injury.

“There’s only one game a day, so you couldn’t really make it up,” Jackson said. “I just said, I had a bad first day, there’s a lot of coaches there watching me the first day, and I kind of blew it up.”

Whatever rust had accumulated seemed to disappear by the second day. Jackson estimates he scored 15 points, with five or six rebounds and a few blocks. By the time he left the gym, he had an offer from the Cougars.

The coronavirus outbreak has somewhat worked in WSU’s favor when it comes to Jackson’s recruitment. He planned to compete in the Under Armour AAU circuit, held through March and April, and would choose his college when that finished. When the event was canceled, it moved Jackson’s timeline up, perhaps eliminating the chance that other schools would get eyes on him and make a late offer.

“I just decided, these guys have always been here,” Jackson said. “So it’s best for me to go somewhere they won’t give up on me.”

Earlier this week, Walker ran through a list of WSU coaches who had traveled to see Jackson play in person this season. By the time he finished, the coach had named all five members of Smith’s staff: Smith, Derrick Phelps, Jim Shaw, John Andrzejek and Michael Plank.

“I saw a Cougs jacket at every one of my games,” Jackson said.

Who and what are the Cougars getting?

Jackson was one of the top young players in the region when he arrived at SPSV as a freshman, but at 6-6, he’d always relied on his size against smaller competition, stunting other parts of his game.

Jackson continued to grow, sprouting to 6-8 by the end of his freshman season, 6-10 by the end of his sophomore year and finally 6-11 by his junior campaign, but the high school game necessitated he develop some legitimate post moves and improve his motor.

Walker had the perfect resource. Bakari Hendrix, a 1994 SPSV graduate who went on to play at Solano Community College and eventually Gonzaga, claiming West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in 1998, returned to the school in 2016 to work on Walker’s staff, primarily with Jackson and the frontcourt.

“That’s a big part of my job, the rare time we do have a legitimate big man at St. Patrick-St. Vincent,” Hendrix said by phone Thursday. “I’m the one who usually works with them.”

Jackson wasn’t short on raw ability and displayed a good understanding of the game for someone his age, Hendrix noticed, but he needed to be more comfortable under the basket and fine-tune his footwork.

“I liked his skill. You could tell he hadn’t been coached how to really play in the paint yet,” Hendrix said. “But out on the floor he could handle the ball, pretty good IQ, pretty good touch, decent hands. I was impressed, as big and tall as he was, that he was as skilled as he was.”

Hendrix took a short hiatus in 2018-19 when his first son, Bakari II, was born, but otherwise spent three of the next four years – and six days per week during the season – helping Jackson polish his moves around the rim. In three years as a starter, Jackson averaged 14.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.

“By the time he was done, he was pretty skilled down (in the post),” Hendrix said. “He’s got good feet, pretty good jump hook with his right hand, and his jump hook with his left hand was improving when he’d use it with confidence.”

If you ask Jackson where he feels he’s grown the most at SPSV, “confidence” is the first thing he says.

“My free-throw shooting, my moves, my driving has all-around improved,” he said. “Finishing, rebounding. Definitely, rebounding has improved. So, just all-around game, ball-handling and everything.”

WSU coaches indicated to Jackson they’d have a place on the floor for him in 2020-21, and he should have the flexibility to play all three frontcourt positions. Jackson was almost strictly a center in high school, but when he played alongside 7-footers on the AAU circuit, he’d occasionally move into more of a high-post position.

“I adapt to the team,” Jackson said.

Adapting to Pac-12 hoops is the next challenge, but Jackson seems well-equipped. He’s faced some of the top high school competition California has to offer and he’s teamed with some of the nation’s best recruits – including top-10 national prospects Jalen Green and Josh Christopher – while playing on the AAU circuit.

Jackson won’t visit his new home until quarantine orders are lifted, but it’s something he’s eagerly anticipating.

“I’m ready to see it all and live it,” he said.

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