HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — For Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, the season starts now, 6,000 miles away in Istanbul (Saturday, 9 a.m. ET, NBA TV).
Forget that it’s the preseason. Because starting with these two international games and the seven total exhibition games Jackson could start this month amount to just two fewer than the games he’s started for real in his brief career.
All nine of Jackson’s starts came during last season’s failed postseason following the meniscus tear to Russell Westbrook‘s right knee in Game 2 of the first round. With Westbrook homebound for OKC’s trip to Turkey and England (vs. Philadelphia, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBA TV), and sidelined for the first four to six weeks of the season after an unexpected second surgery to his knee earlier this week, Jackson stands to be the Thunder’s starting point guard for more than one-quarter of the regular season.
So these seven preseason games take on heightened importance for a player who averaged 14.2 mpg last season before his accelerated foray into the postseason, as well as for a team with championship aspirations.
Jackson’s giving a whole new meaning to Mr. October.
“A guy like Reggie Jackson played his tail off and learned a lot,” Kevin Durant said. “And that’s going to help him this season.”
Jackson, 23, was already expecting a larger role with sixth man and 3-point specialist Kevin Martin now playing in Minnesota and the Thunder front office deciding to promote from within. Now he must orchestrate the offense and defend the league’s top point guards as a smarter, savvier, more mature and more productive starter than he was during his hasty indoctrination last April and May.
The experience can’t be understated. The 6-foot-3 Jackson entered his second season as a third-stringer behind Eric Maynor and eventually won the position. OKC traded Maynor to Portland and Jackson, the 24th overall pick in 2011, began the acclimation process as a full-time rotation player. Come April 27 at Houston, in no way could he have been prepared physically or mentally for the burdensome task of taking over Westbrook’s position for the reiging West champs in the heat of the postseason.
His playing time more than doubled to 33.5 mpg. Consider that Jackson attempted 325 shots in 70 games last season, more than twice as many as he took as a rookie in just 45 games. In 11 playoff games, he attempted 119 shots, 108 coming in the nine games he started.
“I think right now I have the most confidence,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing coming off the playoff experience is I know I know I belong. I used to question [that]. It was probably the most frustrating two years of my basketball career so far, is feeling that I only belong sometimes against certain guys; having a feeling of wanting to be great, but in the back of mind sometimes I would have a mustard seed of doubt.”
In the playoffs, Jackson averaged 13.9 ppg on 47.9 percent shooting (he shot just 30.2 percent from beyond the arc, an aspect he said he worked on relentlessly during the summer), 3.6 apg, 4.5 rpg and just 1.9 turnovers, a remarkably low number considering how often the ball was in his hands compared to the regular season.
He is a sneaky, instinctual defender, tremendously quick off the dribble, much like Westbrook, with excellent bounce to get to the rim or dish it off as he soars through the lane. That speed and inexperience proved a toxic mix twice in crunch time in the Grizzlies series, resulting in out-of-control, momentum-swinging charge calls. Those costly turnovers, born of youth and inexperience, proved invaluable teaching tools.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, I’m OK knowing if I mess up that I can move onto the next play,” Jackson said. “I’ve watched guys like Russ and KD do it, who hold the ball so much for us, who control our offense so much and who are counted on to do so much. [Having] some success has just raised my confidence level that I belong, regardless.”
Preseason or not, Mr. October’s season begins now in Istanbul.