Lauren Jackson did many things well on a basketball court, but hiding her emotions wasn't one of them. In between celebratory smiles, Jackson was full of entirely too much frustration caused by the injuries that ultimately forced her to retire from basketball this week at age 34.
If you were building the ideal basketball player in a lab, you might want to start with Jackson. At 6 feet, 6 inches, the Australian legend was one of the tallest players in the WNBA throughout her 12-year career, yet she was also one of the league's most dangerous outside shooters. Jackson's combination of skills drew comparisons to NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, but Nowitzki couldn't match Jackson -- the 2007 defensive player of the year -- in terms of impact at both ends of the court.
Unfortunately, the frame that made Jackson so hard to stop on the court was also her greatest enemy. Shin injuries plagued Jackson starting as a teenager, and by her mid-20s her body began to betray her. It's a testament to Jackson's dominance in her prime that she can go down as one of the greatest players in WNBA history while also leaving us to wonder how much better her career might have been.
When she was 21, Jackson didn't yet know how to harness her many skills. A young Jackson tended to float to the perimeter to avoid contact. When Hall of Fame center Anne Donovan took over as the Seattle Storm's coach in 2003, she pushed Jackson to develop her post-up game. The result was Jackson improving her 2-point percentage from 42.1 percent to 53.3 percent en route to the first of three MVP trophies. A year later, she would lead Seattle to its first title.
For someone who loves numbers, there was nobody better to cover than Jackson. She kept us busy trying to track down all the records she set over the course of her career, tying the WNBA single-game record with 47 points (since broken) and becoming the youngest player in league history to reach 1,000 points ... and 2,000 ... and 3,000 ... and 4,000 ... and 5,000. (Diana Taurasi finally caught her by 6,000.)
Jackson fared just as well by advanced statistics. She owns the best two WNBA seasons ever in player efficiency rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com, finishing at 35.0 in 2007 (her second MVP campaign) and 34.9 in 2006. The difference between Jackson and the third-best season, by Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky last year (32.8), is bigger than the gap between third and 10th on the list.
Because of the way injuries limited her minutes totals, Jackson doesn't rate quite as highly by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. Nonetheless, only Tamika Catchings racked up more WARP in her WNBA career than Jackson.
Limited by injuries
Jackson dealt with her share of maladies her first seven seasons in the WNBA. After her record-setting 2007, however, Jackson's year-round schedule -- including playing several seasons for Russian power Spartak and starring for the Australian National Team -- began to take a toll.
Between 2008 (when she suffered an ankle injury in the Olympics that ended her season) and 2012 (when she sat out the first half of the year to prepare for the Olympics), Jackson played just 101 out of a possible 170 regular-season games and missed both the 2008 and 2009 playoffs.
Over that five-year span, the Storm developed a split personality. Without Jackson, they'd use tough defense and just enough scoring from point guard Sue Bird to remain competitive. When Jackson was healthy, Seattle was an elite team. Everything came together in 2010, when Jackson won her last MVP and the Storm went 28-6 before sweeping through the postseason for the team's second championship.
The title would prove Jackson's last transcendent moment. She was on the court but limited in the 2011 and 2012 postseasons, and Seattle lost in the opening round both years. Jackson's final shot in a WNBA uniform was a miss at the buzzer of the deciding Game 3 at Minnesota that would have allowed the Storm to upset the Lynx.
Since then, Jackson has dealt with repeated setbacks in her attempts to get healthy and return to the court. Finally, Jackson decided the remote possibility of playing in her fifth Olympics wasn't worth the cost to her long-term health.
What is most sad about Jackson's injuries, besides the way they robbed her (and us) of years of productive basketball, is that she never had an opportunity to say goodbye on the court. There was no farewell tour. Of course, knowing how much Jackson disliked talking about herself, she might not have wanted that anyway.
That shouldn't stop us from using Jackson's retirement as an opportunity to reflect on her career. Looking back, it's not so much the injuries that stand out as the good times -- Jackson and Bird enjoying garbage time on the bench after building a big lead, her joy over leading Australia to the FIBA World Championship in 2006 and, of course, the Storm's WNBA championships. Those, along with the incredible stats she posted, are Jackson's legacy.
Kevin Pelton spent a decade covering Lauren Jackson for the Seattle Storm's website.