For Desmar Jackson, it's more than his dribble drive that has baffled his fair share of opponents. The former Warren G. Harding and Southern Illinois standout always has had the ability to dazzle with hardwood moves, but there's intangibles that could make him into an NBA player.
"Just his maturation is night and day from when he was in high school to now. That, as his former coach, is what you want to see," said Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold, who was Jackson's basketball coach at WGH.
Jackson's dream of the NBA could be realized during Thursday night's NBA draft, which consists of two rounds.
"It really doesn't matter which team I get picked up with, I just want the opportunity to play with those guys at the next level," Jackson said. "That's obviously a lot of kids dreams to play in the NBA. If I'm lucky enough to make a team, then I'm satisfied with that."
The last Warren G. Harding player to be drafted was Monti Davis out of Tennessee State - selected 21st in the first round in 1980 by the Philadelphia 76ers. However, his pro career never panned out.
Jackson, if drafted, would be the first Southern Illinois player chosen since Chris Carr was taken by the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 1995 draft.
This season, Jackson averaged 18.6 points, 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 78 percent from the free-throw line and 46.6 percent from the floor.
"It would mean a great deal for the young man," Arnold said. "He's come so far. If he's not drafted, he'll get invited to an NBA camp. I think it'll mean a lot to him personally and his family, the community, our school."
Jackson's push to the next level comes from within his 6-foot-5, 185-pound guard-like frame. Shawn Pompelia, who coached Jackson his freshman and sophomore years at John F. Kennedy, sees the maturity in his former player who has played at both Wyoming and Southern Illinois during his collegiate career. In addition to basketball, Jackson is scheduled to graduate this August with a degree in University Studies.
"He decided he needed to grow up," Pompelia said. "He saw what the talent level is. He really put his mindset to achieve greatness. Coming from Warren, Ohio, the draft may seem like a dream, but he never lost focus of that.
"He constantly had great people around him telling him what he should be doing and what he shouldn't be doing in life. To achieve those goals, he knew he needed to get serious about his conditioning, about how he treated his body and about the time he spent in the gym."
Jackson played two years in the Missouri Valley Conference. His junior year at SIU, he went head-to-head against Creighton's Doug McDermott, a 6-8, 223-pound forward. He averaged no less than 29 points in all four years with the Blue Jays. McDermott, a three-time All-American, won this year's Associated Press Player of the Year Award. Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference for the Big East before McDermott's senior season.
"Playing with guys like that, that makes you see where your game is at, going up against those kind of guys - being able to compete and play with those guys," Jackson said. "It just lets you know how good you can be. He's definitely a good player. I'm going up against him, that's giving more confidence for the next level."
However, on the floor, Jackson got his foundation from his high school coaches. He said both coaches were always there for him and gave him a great foundation. Jackson said he stays in touch with both Arnold and Pompelia.
"We'd bump heads a lot," Jackson said of Arnold. "Sometimes I'd take a play off in practice. He'd stay on me. He had me do whatever I had to do to get that fight out of me. I feel he's one of the coaches that bring a lot out of players. He's definitely good at pushing. I thank him for pushing me and seeing the bigger picture in life."
Jackson said Pompelia, who recently took a job as an assistant at Warren G. Harding, motivated him as well.
"I think he's a good fit at Harding," Jackson said. "He definitely has those kids best interests and want to see those kids succeed. People like that will help the program a lot."
He'll take these lessons from high school and college and see if it translates in an NBA career.
"I'm going day-by-day right now," said Jackson, who is heading back to Southern Illinois to finish classes toward his degree. "I'm probably not going to be a first-round pick, who knows if I'm going to be a second-round pick. I'm just leaving things in God's hands right now.
"I'm going to continue to keep working hard and trying to get in the NBA. If not, I'm definitely going to pursue a career overseas."
However, the people in Warren know Jackson has what it takes to make an NBA roster.
"Desmar needs to know he has the mindset to make a roster in the league, confidence," Pompelia said. "He knows he's got a helluva challenge ahead of him. But, he also knows he can do this. Those are two powerful points, when you can put your mind to something and work to achieve that. He's got a great gift for the game.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of him."