With the James Harden scenario still fresh on the minds of Thunder fans, there is already a slight panic over Reggie Jackson's impending contract situation.
His great performances – and lately, there have been plenty – are met with a combination of 'Oh wow, his rapid development could be key to a title run!' and 'Oh no, could he be playing himself out of the Thunder's price range?'
It's a strange situation, but one that is unavoidable for a small-market franchise that continues to draft and develop young and talented guys behind a trio of big-name players that are already financially locked up long term.
Jackson is secured through next season under his rookie contract, but will be eligible for a hefty extension in July. It's the same career checkpoint OKC faced with Harden, eventually deciding to ship the star shooting guard away once it was clear a deal could not be agreed upon.
This time, Jackson shouldn't come at the same price tag. Harden got max money, Jackson likely won't.
But with the way he's been playing this year – 12.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists in only 24.6 minutes, plus advanced metrics that suggest he's a great defender – there's sure to be plenty of talent-strapped teams willing to throw a wad of cash and a feature role his way come the 2015 offseason.
That's still far down the line, but you can bet this forward-looking franchise (as shown by the Harden trade) is well-versed in all of the potential parameters.
And the biggest potential problem likely won't be money. Jackson may be willing to take less to stay with the franchise that showed faith — drafting and developing the little-known Boston College guard.
Plus, the Thunder could have more flexibility, with Thabo Sefolosha's and Nick Collison's contracts up and Kendrick Perkins' $9.1 million tag, through amnesty or trade, possibly off the books.
But the largest roadblock in keeping Jackson may actually become his on-court role
Take a look at what Jackson said after Tuesday's shootaround in Denver, when asked whether he viewed himself as a starter in this league.
“Why not?” Jackson quickly retorted. “I looked at (Michael) Jordan growing up, idolized the greats. I think that's how you're remembered. I mean, it's a fun role (off the bench), playing and competing. But every day I woke up at 5 in the morning in high school, getting shots up and I never said I wanted to be a bench player. I always woke up to be the greatest.”
Jackson reiterated that he's satisfied with his current role — currently one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. But unlike most of his competitors for that distinction, Jackson is in the early stages of his career, with the 23-year-old's best days ahead of him.
And it clearly sounds like, in his mind, that includes a feature role as a starter.
“To be the best I think you eventually have to get to a starting role and you have to do it consistently,” Jackson continued. “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.”
Can that come in OKC? Could it come alongside the Thunder's established superstars?
“I don't think that's for me to decide,” Jackson said. “Management always does that. I just come out and compete and try to get better each and every day and figure out things from there.”