Having finished fielding questions at a news conference Thursday, Demetrius Jackson descended a platform and began weaving his way through the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center, as if he were Henry Hill at the Copacabana. When he entered the Notre Dame locker room, stuffed with people and microphones, his teammates and coaches shuffled aside for him, creating enough space for him to sit at the stall with his nameplate, giving him as much deference as the crowded confines would allow.
"He drives the bus for us," Notre Dame assistant coach and Delaware County native Martin Ingelsby said. "Everything goes through him."
Jackson is the Fighting Irish's starting point guard, at least for the moment - a 6-foot-1 junior, a possible first-round pick in the NBA draft in June, maybe the most important player on a Notre Dame team that beat Wisconsin, 61-56, Friday in an East Regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament. That status already makes Jackson a more intriguing and promising player than anyone who had played the position in the last year for the franchise that usually hosts games at this particular arena.
The 76ers, of course, are in desperate need of stability and talent at point guard - "They need a lot of things," Ingelsby said - and it was no coincidence that their general manager, Sam Hinkie, sat courtside Friday night, eyeballing Notre Dame's pregame warm-ups. The Sixers could have as many as four selections in this year's first round, the picks spread out from the beginning of the round to its end. Since Jackson is among the most highly touted four or five point guards likely to be available in the draft, since on paper he possesses some of the qualities that the Sixers - Hinkie and coach Brett Brown, specifically - prize in a prospective orchestrator of their offense, Hinkie clearly wanted an up-close look at him.
If the Sixers considered Michael Carter-Williams' jump shot too inconsistent and his temperament too entitled and immature for them to commit to him, Jackson would seem the opposite in both background and skill set. Jackson is from Mishawaka, Ind., not far from Notre Dame's campus. At age 12, with his father in jail and his mother alone to raise his siblings, he entered foster care, finally meeting a couple, Dave and Beth Whitfield, willing and able to give him a stable home and a full opportunity to develop as a man and a ballplayer.
Basketball "was always an outlet for me growing up," Jackson said. "On the west side of South Bend, it was something I could always do. ... I've always been competitive - sometimes too competitive. When I was little, I used to start trouble on the court, just a big mouth talking too much."
Jackson didn't begin playing organized basketball until he was in fifth grade, and he didn't become a point guard until he was in high school. "Nobody else wanted to handle the press," he said. "They didn't want to bring the ball up against the press, so I was left out to dry."
That late start, both in the sport and at the position, means that - despite the stereotype vis-a-vis the NBA draft that a college upperclassman is somehow already a fully formed player - Jackson has plenty of room to improve.
In his sophomore season, for instance, he shot an excellent 43 percent from three-point range - in large part, he acknowledged, because the presence of guard Jerian Grant, the 19th-overall pick in last year's draft, freed him for open shots. Though Jackson entered Friday averaging a career-high 15.5 points per game this season, his three-point percentage had fallen to 33 percent, as his increased responsibilities and the increased attention opponents paid him forced him into more difficult shots.
"At times, he maybe takes some questionable ones, but he's got a beautiful stroke," said Ingelsby, himself a former Notre Dame point guard. "When he gets his feet set, he'll be a better shooter than what he's shot lately.
"He's really grown as a point guard over the last two years as far as learning how to run a team, having a voice, having more of a presence. As a freshman, he kind of just played, but he's found a happy medium as far as running a team but also 'We need you to score and go for it a little more.' I think his basketball I.Q. has grown in our system."
Most of what Hinkie watched first-hand Friday wasn't pretty. Jackson missed six of his seven shots from the field in the first half, and for all his focus on Notre Dame's fortunes in the tournament, he had to know that scouts and executives would be on hand to get a glimpse of him, under the assumption that he will make himself eligible for the draft. But that pressure seemed no bother to him in the game's final minute: He had two steals and six points, finishing the game with 16 points and six assists, allowing the Fighting Irish to complete a stunning comeback, and showing why the Sixers and the rest of the NBA will take a long, close look at him.
"I'm keeping aware of it so I can educate myself, make an educated decision," Jackson said. This time next year, that choice may have led him back to Philadelphia, to a team where everything was flowing through him again.