One man can relate to what Reggie Jackson is going through while awaiting his impending 2015 free agency.
"I fell into the same situation, and that could have been my only contract. And I'm sure Reggie feels the same way," Houston Rockets star James Harden recently told The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. "He has to get the money that he's earned and that he's worked his whole life for. It's the nature of the business. It's going to happen every single year, and it's going to continue to happen."
Like Jackson, Harden played his first three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, primarily as a sixth man and third option behind superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When it became clear he'd be a prohibitively expensive luxury in Oklahoma City, general manager Sam Presti dealt the Arizona State product to Houston—where he's since emerged as a franchise player.
A similar scenario may unfold for Jackson, a 24-year-old who's making the most of injuries that will keep Durant and Westbrook sidelined through at least month's end. After failing to reach agreement on a contract extension with the organization in October, Jackson now has the opportunity to audition the full range of his ability before becoming a restricted free agent next summer.
Through nine games, he's showing flashes of All-Star form while averaging 20.2 points, 7.6 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 40.5 minutes per contest.
"He's in a great position," Harden added. "I'm sorry to hear that KD and Russell are out. But he has a great opportunity to show everybody that he can play and that he is talented enough to carry a team. He's doing a great job. They're in every single game, they're competing hard and he's the leader. He has the ball in his hands every possession. He's handling it the right way."
Indeed, the third-year veteran's usage rate (25.9) ranks eighth among point guards, according to Hollinger Stats.
Coming off an emergent season in which he tallied 13.1 points and 4.1 assists per game, it's beginning to look like Jackson may follow one breakout campaign with another—this time elevating his free-agent price tag to new heights in the process.
Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski observed this month that, "He's generating a market value that'll test the Thunder's resolve in restricted free agency this summer. Every night, executives examine Jackson, and his offer-sheet possibilities are climbing into the $13 million to $14 million range.
"As one Eastern Conference executive told Yahoo Sports: 'He's a bigger Eric Bledsoe—and probably better."
That's high praise, and particularly illustrative given Bledsoe's new five-year deal with the Phoenix Suns. After a lengthy standoff during his restricted free agency this summer, Bledsoe finally agreed to a contract worth a reported $70 million in late September. It's a pact that could help established a precedent for Jackson, a similarly skilled guard whose early years have likewise been obscured by more prominent names.
Bledsoe played behind Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers during his second and third seasons, stunting his arrival as a marquee player. Jackson stepped out from Westbrook's shadow last season on account of injury, starting 36 games and proving himself a credible NBA starter.
Now he's proving to be something more.
Though his team has limped to an early 3-9 record, Jackson's production and leadership offer somewhat of a silver lining. OKC can cite narrow losses to the Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies as evidence that it can still compete without a former MVP and his elite sidekick in uniform.
Jackson's game isn't perfect (he's so far making just 28.6 percent of his three-point attempts), but the kind of salary figures Wojnarowski's floating certainly don't seem unrealistic—not after Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio came to terms on a four-year, $55 million extension.
Floor generals who score, defend and create for others don't come cheap—even in a league that already seems full of them.
CBSSports.com's James Herbert includes the Rockets, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks among the teams that may have need for Jackson's services. If just one of those clubs elects to throw big money his way, Presti and Co. may find themselves facing a difficult decision.
Per league rules, Oklahoma City may match any offer Jackson receives on the open market. According to at least some sources, it plans on doing just that.
But things may grow more complicated. Jackson isn't content to remain a sixth man, and it's unclear whether head coach Scott Brooks has made peace with the idea of starting him at the shooting guard spot.
As Wojnarowski reported after extension talks ended on Oct. 31, "Jackson is determined to pursue restricted free agency as a means to hunt a starting job in the NBA, league sources told Yahoo Sports."
He added that, "League executives believe Jackson holds a distinct advantage among his peers: The Thunder's investment into their star players may limit how far the franchise can go to match a rich offer sheet and make Jackson an ideal target to change teams."
In other words, the organization may be unable to afford another lucrative long-term arrangement so long as Durant, Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka remain on the books.
It may be even less able to afford the stir created by an aspiring star who's maintained his desire for a starting job since last season. A job that's all his for the moment.
"I'm just trying to make the most of it," Jackson told reporters this month. "I came out and said I wanted to be a starter, so I have to take this opportunity head on and go out here and do the best that I can to try to prepare each and every day now to help my guys, help the team get better."
Jackson's young season hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. An ankle injury forced him out of OKC's first three games, and his debut in a 116-85 loss to the Brooklyn Nets came replete with seven turnovers and some rare controversy.
Mayberry documented teammates Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins growing, "visibly frustrated with the fourth-year point guard for not running the offense," citing one instance in which, "Ibaka grabbed a defensive rebound and looked off Jackson, who was right beside him, to pass ahead to Telfair."
Brooks didn't sugarcoat after the one-sided defeat.
"It's simple. You just have to get off the basketball," he told reporters after the contest. "You got four teammates out there. You just got to move the basketball. In order for other guys to participate, you've got to move the ball. And we didn't do that tonight, particularly Reggie didn't do that tonight."
Jackson bounced back with 14 assists in a 100-88 loss to the Toronto Raptors, and he's managed to balance his scoring and playmaking generally well over the last two weeks.
For the record, he doesn't have much help.
Some will argue that his numbers are inflated as a result. Given his ample playing time and the shortage of alternative scoring options (and ball-handlers), it's no surprise Jackson is significantly outpacing his 2013-14 numbers. And while his 43.1 percent success rate from the field is respectable, it comes with an average of 17.1 field-goal attempts per contest. For better or worse, this is definitely the Reggie Jackson show.
In a perfect world, the Boston College product is probably destined to become an exceptional sidekick—not unlike the three-time All-Star under whom he's studied.
Adding him to a team with James Harden or Kobe Bryant makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma City can offer little more than the life of a third or fourth option, mopping up the few touches that don't go to Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. It's the kind of complementary role that may well be foreign to Jackson's DNA.
If the Thunder can make this work, however, it may be worth every dime. Notwithstanding his blossoming talent, Jackson contributes the kind of leadership and two-way pedigree that sets championship teams apart.
"It's fun just trying to rally everybody and find ways to win," Jackson told Herbert this month. "It's tough right now. I'm willing to take it upon myself to lead the team and go out here and get things done defensively and bring the intensity on that end as well as offensively set the tone for the entire game.
"It's difficult right now, but it's the fun part. It doesn't matter who's out there; it's just fun playing the game, and I love when my teammates look to me to try to get things set. I'm just trying to make the most of this opportunity."
If the projected size of his next contract is any indication, Jackson is certainly making the most of this opportunity.
Whatever happens next summer, Jackson will sign for a lot more than the $2,325,680 he'll make this season (per Hoopshype.com). No less importantly, he may well find that coveted starting job.