Before another knee surgery sent Westbrook to the sideline until after the All-Star break, via USA Today's Sam Amick, Jackson was busy holding the Thunder's sixth man spot that Houston Rockets guard James Harden used to occupy.
And holding it well. Too well, perhaps.
Jackson joined a better Thunder team than the one that drafted Harden third overall in 2009. Oklahoma City was coming off a 23-win season and trapped in a four-year playoff drought when Harden arrived. By the time Jackson was made the 24th overall selection two years later, the Thunder had rattled off consecutive 50-plus-win seasons.
Jackson was understandably slower out of the gate than Harden. The opportunities for the two in their respective rookie seasons weren't the same. Harden was granted nearly 23 minutes a night in his freshman season; Jackson saw barely 11 minutes of floor time.
Now in his third season, though, Jackson is starting to catch Harden's pace. Harden still has the edge in third-year production, but the gap isn't as wide as you might think. Put both players' numbers on the same per-36-minutes scale, and the figures bear an undeniable resemblance.
|This Feels Familiar: Jackson's and Harden's Third-Year Production|
The widest disparity between the two is in field-goal shooting. By his third season, Harden was almost shooting with a LeBron James-type of efficiency. Jackson, meanwhile, is plugging along in the good-not-great range.
But there's something worth noting in these numbers. Harden had a reliable three-pointer (39.0 percent in his third season) to bolster his stat line. Jackson is still finding his rhythm from long range (31.3).
The former Boston College standout is getting by on athleticism and raw talent. He hasn't had as many chances to produce, as long a rope to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Still, he's managed to establish himself as one of the game's best penetrators, finishing near the basket like both of his predecessors.
And despite standing two inches shorter (6'3") and having 12 fewer pounds to throw around (208) than Harden, Jackson's already leaving a bigger imprint on the glass. Don't forget, Jackson's also logged a majority of his minutes at the point guard spot, a position that doesn't lend itself to many easy rebounding chances.
Jackson also has a big edge at the defensive end, a side of the floor Harden doesn't always remember exists. Jackson is yielding just 13.5 player efficiency ratings to opposing point guards and 14.2 PER marks to opposing 2s—league average is 15.0—on the season, via 82games.com.
This isn't meant to suggest that Jackson's a better player than Harden. One's a part-time player still finding his NBA way; the other is an established superstar.
The point here is that Jackson could be on his way to joining that exclusive stage alongside Harden. Or at least close enough where he'll paint an all-too-familiar, haunting image for this small-market franchise.
Same Challenges of Economics and Opportunities
Like Harden, Jackson is giving OKC champagne production on a cheap-beer salary. The 23-year-old is making just $1.26 million this season, the second-to-last year left on his rookie contract. He's slated to make $2.2 million for the 2014-15 campaign, after which time he'll enter restricted free agency if nothing has been done on his deal.
In other words, enjoy the cheap contribution while it lasts. Those days are numbered.
Given general manager Sam Presti's history, Jackson's fate will be decided long before his contract is up. It's written in the OKC executive's handbook, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) noted:
One of the ironclad rules during general manager Sam Presti's tenure in OKC is he does not let his young studs get to free agency. Sign them to an extension before their rookie deal expires or flip them to another team for more assets.
Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka fell in the extension category. That left Harden as the flipper.
When OKC couldn't enter Harden's desired price range, the bearded scorer was shipped out to the Houston Rockets in a six-player swap that netted the Thunder a proven commodity (Kevin Martin), a prospect (Jeremy Lamb) and three future draft picks.
Money is still tight in OKC. It always will be for a small-market club.
There's a bit of financial relief on the way. Thabo Sefolosha's contract expires at season's end, Kendrick Perkins' cap-chewing deal follows the year after. But Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all pulling in eight-figure salaries through the 2015-16 season (2016-17 in the cases of Westbrook and Ibaka).
For Presti, the challenge isn't just about finding enough cash for Jackson. Just as it wasn't his only hurdle when he tried keeping Harden happy.
The GM has to show Jackson that not only will his talents be economically rewarded, but also that they'll be given a chance to be fully realized in OKC. With the Thunder's talented trio rightfully chewing up major portions of playing time and offensive opportunities, it might be hard for Jackson to see where he fits in.
He seems comfortable in a sixth man role for now, but as he told The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, he's still itching for a permanent place in the starting five:
To be the best I think you eventually have to get to a starting role and you have to do it consistently. Thirty-plus minutes night in and night out and get championships. So that's the thing that motivates me each and every day and what I strive for.
Jackson's star is still in its infancy. Harden's shined a little brighter in his third season, but his superstar ascent began in earnest once he hit the Houston hardwood.
The fact that Jackson's story has resembled Harden's this much is a credit to both the 23-year-old himself and this franchise's keen eye for talent. Harden's exit was supposed to close OKC's championship window. Jackson's rise has helped keep the Thunder's ceiling in that rarefied air known as title contention.
But this parallel pattern needs to stop soon. While I don't doubt Presti's ability to turn Jackson into something just as good down the line, that would require a development window that this franchise might not be able to afford.
Jackson's free-agent future looms large now, but there are even more important decisions to be made at a later date. OKC's biggest negotiating chip is its talent; that's what leaves a sliver of hope that KD and Westbrook won't bolt for bigger markets when they have the chance.
Jackson is already a part of that talent. He'll only get better with time.
But he has to see a light at the end of this tunnel. A light bright with riches, recognition and everything else that comes with performing at the highest level of the game's grandest stage.
A light that Harden had to leave to find. A light that Thunder fans can only hope Jackson will see for himself hanging high above the Sooner State.
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