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Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

Over the next month and a half, as players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. After spending two seasons as Russell Westbrook’s understudy, Jackson was thrust into the spotlight by Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs. While he couldn’t fill replace Westbrook, he more than held his own, emerging as a starting caliber player in his own right.

Last season, with Westbrook in and out of the line-up, Jackson started 40 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 44% shooting. He moved back to the bench in the playoffs, where he was extremely effective in a more limited role. Much like James Harden two years ago, Jackson has to decide whether he wants to be one of the best sixth men in the NBA or whether he wants to run his own team.

Jackson was a late bloomer at Boston College, not emerging as a star until his junior season, when he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 50% shooting. Since there weren’t many other scoring options on his team, he primarily looked for his own shot, which raised questions about his ability to be a full-time PG at the NBA level. Seen as a guy stuck between positions at the next level, Jackson slipped to the No. 23 pick in 2011.

At 6’3 210 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jackson had elite size and athleticism for the PG position, but he was just another guy as a SG. In that respect, he wasn’t all that different from Westbrook, who was also seen as more of a combo guard coming out of college. Like with Westbrook, there were also questions about Jackson’s perimeter jumper - he shot 42% from 3 as a junior, but he was below 30% from beyond the arc as a freshman and a sophomore.

Jackson’s size, athleticism and scoring ability meant he would have a good shot of earning a spot in an NBA rotation, but he would likely need to improve as a shooter and a passer to earn a starting nod, especially given the competition at the PG position at the next level. As a late first-round pick, nothing would be handed to him, which he found out as a rookie, when he went back and forth to the D-League and barely got off the end of the bench.

Not only was Jackson playing behind one of the best PG’s in the NBA, his coach (Scott Brooks) had an unhealthy fixation with Derek Fisher. Fisher was brought in to Oklahoma City to provide veteran leadership and shooting in an extremely limited role off the bench, but Brooks gave him as many minutes as he could handle and then some. He was still stealing playing time from Jackson in last year’s playoffs, despite shooting 29% (!!) from the field.

Were it not for Westbrook’s knee injury, there’s a good chance Jackson would have been a complete unknown at the NBA level headed into his fourth season in the league. As is, he has still played in only 3,700 total minutes with the Thunder, around 600 more than Damian Lillard received as a rookie. In that respect, Jackson’s current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Like Bledsoe, Jackson has taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best in practice, gradually improving as a player in each of his first three seasons. His perimeter shot has improved by leaps and bounds, as he has turned himself into a respectable three-point shooter, shooting 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game last season. Most importantly, he has become a much better decision-maker, averaging 4.1 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game.

As a result, Jackson is a complete PG without any glaring holes in his game. He’s an elite athlete with great size who can create his own shot, run point, stretch the floor, rebound at a high level and match up with both backcourt positions. In many ways, he’s a mini-Westbrook, a score-first guard who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. The problem is that since he’s still not a great three-point shooter, he needs the ball in his hands to be successful.

That’s an issue in Oklahoma City, where everything in the offense goes through Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There’s an opening in the starting line-up at SG with Thabo Sefolosha gone, but the Thunder will probably want a better spot-up shooter in that role than Jackson, whose a better fit as a sixth man, where he can dominate possessions on the second unit. Even if he closes games, there is a limit on how many shots and minutes he will receive.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a sixth man on a title contender, but those guys don’t get paid like starters on average teams, much less good ones. That was the dilemma Harden faced two summers ago, when he was asking for a max contract with the Thunder. Instead of taking a little less to be a third wheel in Oklahoma City, Harden opted to be the man in Houston, where he makes $16 million a year and is a first-team All-NBA SG.

Jackson will probably never reach those heights, but why should a 24-year-old put a ceiling on his game? He’s more than ready to run his own team and there’s no way to know what type of numbers he would put up if he had a usage rating north of 25. He has said in interviews that he wants to be one of the best players in the world and that will never happen with the Thunder, where he will always be playing third banana to Durant and Westbrook.

If Oklahoma City doesn’t agree to an extension with Jackson, it will be seen as another indication of the franchise’s unwillingness to spend money, but it’s more complicated than that. Salary dictates playing time and position in the pecking order in the NBA and it’s going to be hard to for the Thunder to pay Jackson first or second option money when they have already maxed out Durant and Westbrook. There are only so many shots to go around in an offense.

In Harden’s last season in Oklahoma City, he was averaging 10 field goal attempts a game, 1 less than Jackson averaged last season. To be worth a max contract, he would have needed to be nearer to the 16-17 FGA’s he takes in Houston. He hasn’t won a playoff series with the Rockets, but he wouldn’t be seen as the top SG in the NBA if he was still the Thunder’s 6th man. To reach his potential, Jackson will have to spread his wings and leave the nest. 

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

When Kyrie Irving started to heat up halfway through the first quarter, he removed any intrigue from the championship game of the World Cup. Team USA was up 35-21 after ten minutes and never looked back from there, which was really the story of the tournament. The Americans dominated with absolute ease, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points a game, their highest margin of victory since the 1994 world championships.

They trailed only once at halftime - a group play game against Turkey which they ended up winning by 19 points - and they were never tested in the second half of a game. None of the teams they faced could stop them from scoring and none could consistently execute against their defense. Order has been restored to the basketball universe, as Team USA has won the last four major international tournaments and hasn’t lost a game since 2006.

The scariest part about their performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain. At the start of the summer, the three players expected to lead Team USA were Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George. Coach K was able to reshuffle the roster on the fly, with waves of shooters and defenders on the perimeter and three man rotation upfront of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins.

Without Durant, Team USA opted to spread responsibility around and not run their offense through any one player. Six different guys - James Harden, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Irving, Davis and Faried - averaged in double figures in the tournament. The days of international teams wanting to zone the Americans and daring them to shoot from the perimeter have come and gone - Team USA shot 52% from the field, 57% from 2 and 40% from 3. 

While there were moments where the offense stagnated and individual players held the ball, for the most part, the Americans did a good job of spreading the floor, moving the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. With Cousins coming off the bench and dominating second unit big men, averaging 9.6 points a game on 70% shooting, they even had the option of running offense through the post when the pace of the game slowed down.

That didn’t happen too often, though, as the US had only one game where they scored less than 95 points. When you consider that international games are only 40 minutes long, it shows you how effortlessly Team USA was able to put up points against the best teams in the world. At a certain point in each game, they started going from defense to offense and getting out in the open floor, essentially running every team they faced out of the gym. 

Defense was their calling card in this tournament, an impressive feat when you consider the NBA reputations of many of their best players. Four of their five starters - Irving, Curry, Harden and Faried - are guys viewed as weaker players on that end of the floor. Fewer minutes and smaller offensive roles allowed them to increase their effort level while a great defensive scheme by Team USA’s coaching staff put them in a position to succeed.

Given their overwhelming edge in talent and athleticism, you would expect the Americans to be a dominant defensively, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even when the US was finishing out of the top two in major international tournaments from 2002-2006, the problem was never a lack of athletic talent. Under the direction of Colangelo and Coach K, the American players buy into a team concept and execute at a high level on both sides of the ball. 

In 2014, the end result was a juggernaut that ran rings around the rest of the world. If you break down the roster individually, no one would take this version of Team USA over either of the teams that won gold medals in the last two Olympics, yet both groups had to pull out several games in the fourth quarter. A lot of that is because Spain won silver in 2008 and 2012 and lost in the quarterfinals in 2014, but you can only face the teams in front of you.

When Spain was knocked out of the tournament, they took almost any chance of drama with them. Before their upset loss to France, the Spaniards were playing about as well as Team USA, going 6-0 and winning by an average of over 20 points a game. On paper, the Spanish frontline of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could have given the Americans some match-up problems upfront, but the way they lost to France throws cold water on that scenario. 

If Spain was going to be physically manhandled in their own gym and outrebounded 50-28 by a frontline of Boris Diaw, Joffrey Lauvergne and Boris Diaw, they were going to have a hard time keeping Davis, Cousins and Faried off the glass. The French didn’t even play that well in the upset - they shot 39% from the field and 25% from 3. If the US had used a similar defensive game-plan and shot well from the perimeter, they would have blown Spain out.

With their gold medal in the World Cup, the US automatically clinches a spot in the 2016 Olympics, which means they won’t have to play any qualifying games in 2015. That’s good news for international basketball, since Team USA’s presence tends to remove most of the drama from the proceedings, the ultimate tribute to how dominant they’ve been under Coach K. They are winning so easily these days the whole thing is becoming kind of boring.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

In one of the biggest upsets in recent international basketball history, France knocked off Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. A week after getting blown out by the Spaniards in group play, the French turned the tables in the knockout round. France got standout performances from a number of players, most notably Boris Diaw, who outplayed the Gasol brothers on both sides of the ball, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. 

With national team mainstays Joakim Noah and Tony Parker sitting this tournament out, the French team became Diaw’s, almost by default. Diaw had not put up big scoring numbers before the game against of Spain, but he still impacted the game in a number of ways, serving as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA. 

Spain came into the quarterfinals on a tear, blowing out every team they faced en route to a 6-0 record. After losing to the US in the gold medal games in the last two Olympics, this was supposed to be their year. Not only were they hosting the World Cup, there wasn’t a team in the field with the size to match up with the Gasol brothers. It was pick your poison - either you lived up with Marc and Pau dominating in the post or you gave up open 3’s.

Against France, though, the tables were turned. The French big men, despite giving up a ton of size, played the Gasols and Serge Ibaka very physically, not giving up any space in the post, crowding them on the perimeter and attacking them on the glass. The mismatch ended up working the other way - Diaw was able to drag the Spanish big men away from the paint, where he used his superior quickness to blow by them and collapse the defense. 

Diaw’s fingerprints were all over the win. At 6’8 250 and with a wingspan north of 7’0, he is built more like an NFL LT than an NBA big man. He no longer has the great vertical leap of his youth, but he still has a very strong base and remarkably quick feet, which allows him to body up and stay in front of much bigger players while still contesting their shots. Matched up primarily against Marc Gasol, Diaw held him to three points and four rebounds on 1-7 shooting.

That was one of the biggest problems for Spain on Wednesday - while Marc could not take advantage of Diaw on one side of the ball, he had very little chance of guarding him on the other. France opened the game on an 11-2 run, thanks in large part to two three-pointers from Diaw. Once he established that he could make the perimeter shot, he put the Spanish defense in a difficult bind, since none of their big men could contain him off the dribble either.

For the most part, the other team comes into a game wanting Diaw to be a scorer. He is a naturally unselfish player who is at his best when he can distribute the ball and make plays for everyone else. You can count the number of players with his size, ball-handling and passing ability on one hand. In terms of being a point forward who can dissect a defense from anywhere on the floor, the only guys in the same league as Diaw are LeBron James and Blake Griffin. 

Diaw has a remarkable feel for the game, with an intuitive sense of where the other nine players on the floor are. He doesn’t just find the open man - he creates open shots by anticipating what the defense will do before he even makes his move. My favorite play in the World Cup came in their Round of 16 win over Croatia, when Diaw caught the ball in the post, split a double team in one motion, drew a third defender and then handed the ball off for an open dunk.

Even when he didn’t finish off a possession with a basket or an assist, Diaw was one of the main initiators of the French offense on Wednesday. When he was on the floor, Diaw was either the primary ball-handler or a screener on the pick-and-roll. Something good happened almost every time he touched the ball - he would hit cutters and find the open man out of the post or drive the ball into the defense and create ball movement that would end in an open shot.

Diaw has never been the most consistent player over the course of an 82-game season, but when the lights are brightest, he performs at his best. He gave Spain the complete package in the quarterfinals, beating them as a scorer, passer, shooter, rebounder and defender. Diaw is a 250-pound Swiss Army Knife who can do a little bit of everything over the course of a game, which gives his team a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball.

There’s no position where versatility is more important than power forward, where players have to match-up with a wide variety of opponents. Some teams like to pound the ball inside to two traditional big men while others like to spread the floor with four perimeter players - Diaw lets you do either. He can defend the post and the three-point line and he can play out of the post or on the perimeter on offense. There are not many PF’s who can do all four.

You are not going to find two basketball players more distinct than Marc Gasol and LeBron James and Diaw was able to hold his own against both at the highest levels of the game. Diaw’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 3 of the NBA Finals changed the tenor of the series. With Diaw spreading the floor and playing as a point forward from the top of the key, the San Antonio Spurs blew the Miami Heat off the floor for three straight games.

Diaw was one of the main catalysts for one of the most dominant performances in Finals history. His stat-line for the series was vintage Diaw - six points, eight rebounds and six assists per game - but the most telling number was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1:1. Diaw thinks the game at a really high level and he almost never makes the wrong play with the ball in his hands. He is the ultimate teammate who makes the game easy for everyone around him.

If Diaw had a different mentality, both in terms of hunting for his own shot and keeping himself in peak physical condition, there’s no telling how good a player he could have been. Diaw is the rare basketball player who never had to sacrifice his taste for the finer things in life to excel at the highest levels of the sport. For all he has accomplished, he is still only 31 years old, so basketball fans should be able to enjoy his unique game for many years to come.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spainís rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Buying Low On Meyers Leonard

The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.

Re-Signing Kyle Lowry As The Final Piece For Toronto

With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.

Team-By-Team Analysis Of The 2014 NBA Draft

With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.

2014 NBA Draft: The Underrated

The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.

2014 NBA Draft: The Overrated

Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.

Top-13 Of The 2014 NBA Draft

The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.

Draft Report: Aaron Gordon Of Arizona

Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. Heís the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.

Marcus Smart: Why College Coaching Even Matters For Top-5 Picks

Marcus Smart just lived through the worst possible timeline at Oklahoma State, but he's an ideal player for a rebuilding team because he can be successful next to any type of guard.

The OKC Window Has Barely Begun To Open

The Thunder Big 3 are still two years away from being the same age as LeBron, Wade and Bosh were when they united and they didn't have 2-3 lottery picks entering their prime to serve as a supporting cast.

Scott Brooks' Anti-Meritocracy

Instead of going with the players who earned the right to be on the floor, Scott Brooks went with veterans who had more playoff experience. Playing Derek Fisher over Jeremy Lamb is the canary in the coal mine for Brooks.

Draft Report: Adreian Payne Of Michigan State

Adreian Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game. Payne is one of the most complete big men in the country and his skill-set can improve every team in the league.

The Logic Of The Prokhorov/King Model

As soon as Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets, he began pouring money into the roster with seemingly no regard for costs. Billy King pushed their payroll to stratospheric levels and they're no closer to The Finals, but it remains a sound business decision.

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