OKC Thunder Point Guard Reggie Jackson Navigating Steep Learning Curve

Andrew Gilman@@andrewgilmanOKGuest ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY — Reggie Jackson waved off Kevin Durant once. Then he did it again.

Jackson put his hand uppretty much the international sign for "I heard you, and I have had enough."

The Thunder had a seven-point lead with less than two minutes to play last Wednesday at home against Minnesota. It wasn't the most critical possession of the game, but it wasn't insignificant, either. Durant wanted the ball. Jackson didn't pass it to him. Instead, Jackson took the ball and drove to the basket before flinging it to Thabo Sefolosha for a wide-open three-pointer. Bucket.  

Minnesota called timeout, the crowd buzzed and Durant wore out Jackson as the two went back to the bench. 

It's hard being Reggie Jackson these days.   

Entering their final game before the All-Star break, the Thunder are the top team in the Western Conference and have answered all of the questions that loomed when Russell Westbrook underwent surgery on his right knee on Dec. 27. 

Certainly, Durant is a major reason for the success, after a historic month in which he scored 30 or more points 12 games in a row. But Jackson has done more than just show up. He has started every game Westbrook has missed, all 28 games. Despite constant comparisons to Westbrook, the occasional Durant scolding and the pressure of turning an opportunity into a career, Jackson is part of the reason the Thunder will head into the All-Star break as the top team in the Western Conference.

But there have been hiccups, to be sure. 

On a good day, Jackson is Westbrook-liteable to do many of the same things Westbrook does with ease, just with less consistency and regularity. Aside from Durant and Westbrook, no Thunder player can get to the rim or create a shot as well as Jackson can.

Yet Jackson has struggled with the most crucial aspect of being an everyday NBA starting point guard: consistency. 

His first game with Westbrook sidelined, two days after Christmas, Jackson went 4-of-19 against Charlotte. The next game, he was 7-of-12, scored 16 points and had no turnovers against Houston.

The next two games: 9-of-26, 21 total points with five turnovers.

As a starter, Jackson is shooting 42.2 percent. That compares unfavorably to his bench production, when Jackson shot 46.6 percent. In 17 January games, Jackson shot better than 50 percent only three times. But there have been extreme, bright-white flashes of impressive performances, like when he went for a combined 47 points in back-to-back games in early January.

"Well, I like our record," Jackson said. "Hopefully, people think I contributed somewhat to that."

Jackson's play helped the Thunder to a 13-4 record in January, but it's unpredictability that leads to visible criticism from Durant and coach Scott Brooks, who gestures, exhales and rarely seems pleased with Jackson's play.

"He's coming along," Brooks said. "When Russell comes back, he'll (Jackson) be back with his normal position with that second unit."

The Thunder bench has been predictably successful in recent years. It's featured James Harden and Kevin Martin. Jackson stepped into that spot last year, but his move to the starting position has not been as seamless.

"The second unit is more what I am used to," Jackson said. "I've played with those guys more. I've practiced with them. Every time I get on the floor with the first unit, it's like another practice."

That practice has led to a season where he's reached career highs in points (13.6), rebounds (3.7) and assists (4.2) in nearly double the minutes played (28.3) while facing more scrutiny than ever. With Jackson's increased minutes, his numbers have increased, but his efficiency is close to the same, shooting 44.0 percent, per 36 minutes. Jackson's Player Efficiency Rating is above the league average. 

"The point guard is a tough position," Brooks said. "And then the point guard on a very good team is challenging. He's embraced the challenge, and he's improved."

A season ago, Jackson appeared in 70 games and played just over 14 minutes a game. He didn't start a single game until the first round of the playoffs, when Westbrook went out with his knee injury. In nine playoff starts, Jackson averaged 36.2 minutes and 15.3 points on 47.2-percent shooting, so when he was put back into the starter's role this season when Westbrook once again went out, the expectation was continued ascension.

But there are many caveats to the starting-point-guard role, especially when said role includes a superstar scorer.

"You always want to be a starter," said New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert, who has played against Jackson since their days in the Atlantic Coast Conference together. "Coming off the bench, you can freelance a little more and you just need to keep the train on the tracks. I was in a similar situation my rookie year, starting at point guard with a guy like Carmelo (Anthony). KD (Durant) is the same way. You have to get those guys involved and pick your spots."

And there's the transition that's been difficult. For a few games, like last year in the playoffs, Jackson could be a starter with no expectations. That's not been the case this year. 

"I can be in attack mode when I come off the bench," Jackson said. "Just play downhill. With the first unit, I try and get the other guys going. I'm just trying to get the offense to run smoothly."

For now, Jackson is the starter, but not entrenched enough to avoid being called out on the court by Durant. Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha are staples of the starting lineup, making them somewhat untouchable in regard to being called out. Jackson doesn't have that luxury.  

Jackson will be the first off the bench when Westbrook returns in the next few weeks, but there's no promises about the future. He makes $1.3 million this year, will make $2.2 million next year and has a qualifying offer of $3.2 million for the 2015-16 season.

Jackson doesn't have to be as good as Russell Westbrook, but as a starter, he needs to be good enough to recognize this is Durant's team. Jackson is only the point guard until Durant wants him to be.

If nothing else, through this last bumpy month, Jackson has played more minutes against more quality competition. When Westbrook returns, Jackson should benefit from the recent experience, even if that experience has been shaky at times.

"But I can't really complain," Jackson said. "We're winning, right?"

Andrew Gilman covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for FoxSportsSouthwest.com. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK


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