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.