SALT LAKE CITY — Scott Brooks pulled the first shocker of the night.
In the Thunder's exhibition opener against Houston, the coach summoned Reggie Jackson as the first point guard off the bench, opting for the second-year man over the more experienced, and fully healed, Eric Maynor.
Soon, Jackson pulled his own surprise, snatching the primary backup minutes and capitalizing on them so much that he walked out of State Farm Arena as the game's second-best guard behind only Russell Westbrook.
Mind you, in addition to Maynor, who made his debut in the second half, the game also featured “Linsanity,” or simply Jeremy Lin, and Kevin Martin, the Rockets starting backcourt.
But it was Jackson's improved leadership that gave him a leg up. He scored four points with five assists, one rebound and one steal in 16 minutes. Yet as is typical with Jackson, he was his toughest critic.
“Three turnovers,” he said, still forced to shake his head at himself a day later. “I'd like a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.”
No one else is complaining.
After a turbulent rookie season that inundated him with a lockout, a shortened season, injuries, an unexpected promotion and a deflating demotion, Jackson has now positioned himself to be a more consistent contributor.
Last week, Brooks raised eyebrows when he announced that the backup point guard position is an open competition between Jackson and Maynor. It was a statement largely written off as a motivational tactic designed to promote competition. But after one strong game, on the heels of nearly two weeks of encouraging practices, Jackson continues to prove he belongs.
“I feel slightly more comfortable, (but) not as comfortable as I did in the summer league. I want to get to that point,” Jackson explained. “But definitely more comfortable than when I came in last year as a rookie. So I think that's another progression of my game.”
Jackson has repeatedly credited his participation in the Orlando Pro Summer League with restoring his confidence. He was far and away the star of the Thunder's team and finished the five-games-in-five-days stretch as one of the most dominant players in Orlando.
That week in central Florida was the first time we experienced the real Reggie Jackson, his confidence, his explosiveness, his entire arsenal. Surrounded by mostly fringe NBA players, Jackson was able to shine. It was his team and he did a masterful job leading it.
Jackson is showing the same skills now that he displayed in July.
“I think he's done a great job of understanding that position and understanding that role,” Brooks said. “But the last year was the big year for him. Even though he sat a lot toward the end, I think by playing when he did and also by watching he's picked up important lessons along the way.”
A couple of things stand out about Jackson when you watch him now. The first thing you notice is he's improved at orchestrating the offense. Last season, Jackson struggled getting the ball across half-court in the face of pressure. Now, he's playing with his dribble less and pushing the pace to initiate the offense faster.
“Definitely not playing with it as much,” Jackson said, laughing at the memory. “Eight seconds is a long time, but last year it wasn't long enough for me. I had a few eight-second calls thinking it was still college. Coach got on me about that last year. But definitely just knowing how to get a defender off you and get up the court and an understanding of what sets we might need to get into I think has helped.”
Jackson also is more decisive.
On high pick-and-rolls, Jackson makes up his mind and goes. No longer does Jackson over-dribble, or over-think, while waiting for something to develop. He now puts pressure on the defense by making something happen.
His court vision has also improved. He's finding the open man more frequently, whether on drive and kicks or skip passes.
“I think when you have another year under your belt just playing it's kind of natural you get a little better,” said Westbrook. “You know the game a lot better, the speed. You get to play at your own pace. It's easier for you.”
Defensively, Jackson has grown as well.
Though he struggled at times to stay in front of Lin in the second half, Jackson is expected to get better as he plays opponents more often and learns their tendencies. For now, he's displaying qualities of being a willing defender and using his length to pester guards all over the court.
“He's talented. He's as talented as any guy we have on our team,” Brooks said. “He's a strong, athletic guard that can get to the paint. He can create his own shot. I thought he did a great job of facilitating the offense and getting guys easy points (Wednesday). I see improvements every day with him.”