As we wait for the Thunder to strike in free agency, it’s important to remember one name.
He remains Oklahoma City’s top priority this summer.
For all the handwringing over upgrades, Jackson stands as the most likely player to provide a bigger impact next season, simply through an increase in minutes. For that reason, it can be argued that keeping Jackson in the mix and happy going forward is more pivotal than any personnel addition Oklahoma City can make.
The Thunder can now negotiate a contract extension with its top reserve and backup point guard, and Oklahoma City more than likely touched based with Jackson’s representatives in the opening hours of the free-agency period to discuss the next steps toward hammering out a deal.
Under league rules, Jackson is eligible for a four-year extension to his rookie contract. The Thunder has repeatedly expressed a desire to keep Jackson, who has blossomed into one of the league’s best sixth men and has become a vital contributor on a championship-caliber team.
“Reggie obviously is a guy we think highly of,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said last month. “He’s come through the program. He’s been given a myriad of opportunities, some by design and some out of necessity. I think he’s worked his way through all those admirably.”
But if a deal is not reached by Oct. 31, Jackson will become a restricted free agent next summer, at which point the Thunder will have the opportunity to match whatever offer Jackson might receive from another team.
Although the Thunder has expressed its interest in re-signing Jackson, extensions to rookie deals generally are slow-moving processes.
That doesn’t mean that a deal won’t get done.
“Generally, these things don’t happen in July,” Presti said last month. “The trend now is they don’t even happen by the Oct. 31 deadline. But we are going to make a concerted effort to try to work something out with him that works for everybody. If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll pick the conversations up the following summer and see where that leads us.”
Since the 2002 draft class saw 16 first-round picks awarded with extensions to their rookie scale contracts, teams have begun taken a much more cautious wait-and-see approach. In 2005, seven players were extended prior to Oct. 31. In 2006, there were six. The next two years, only five in each class were extended. The number jumped back up to nine in 2009. But in 2010, that figure again fell to five.
Some of this year’s best free agents are rising fifth-year players who didn’t receive offers from their respective franchises prior to Oct. 31 last year and are now restricted free agents: Detroit post man Greg Monroe, electric Phoenix guard Eric Bledsoe, versatile Utah forward Gordon Hayward and bulldog Boston defender Avery Bradley.
Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall pick in Jackson’s 2011 draft class, in the early morning hours Tuesday became the exception rather than the rule. He agreed to an extension with the Cavs that will net him a maximum allowable contract. Irving was this year’s All-Star Game MVP and a player many view as capable of being the league’s best point guard in time.
For all his promise, Jackson is not the same caliber of player. But with averages of 13.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 28.5 minutes last season, Jackson proved in his third season that he’s a budding star in his own right.
The good news for Oklahoma City fans is the Thunder franchise has signed first-round picks to extensions six times in the last decade, most among all teams over that span. Two of those, Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison, came in the Seattle era. The last four were extended in Oklahoma City. The Thunder agreed to extensions with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka. Durant and Westbrook were no-brainers. Sefolosha and Ibaka better illustrate the Thunder’s willingness to get deals done.
Failing to come to terms prior to Oct. 31 carries risks for both sides. For the team, the player could exceed expectations and play himself into a more lucrative contract, a situation the Suns stumbled into this summer with Bledsoe. But the player also could have a disappointing season or get injured and see his value diminish, thus often making it beneficial for players to obtain long-term security as soon as possible.
When he expressed his desire last month to be a starter, Jackson sent a scare throughout the state and, for many, evoked memories of James Harden. We all know how that turned out. It’s a real issue given Westbrook’s stature, and one that could complicate contract negotiations.
The Thunder doesn’t seem concerned.
“You’ve heard probably everyone say before that every player wants to start,” Presti said last month in response to Jackson’s statements. “So let me put that out there in front of you first. And the next thing I’d say, he’s a guy that fits the profile of a Thunder player in that he’s got size for his position, he’s got length and reach, quickness in tight spaces. And he’s got a competitive will that we value. Those are things that we want our identity to ultimately be.”
Jackson is undoubtedly a starting caliber point guard. But how that all plays out, whether he plays alongside Westbrook or continues coming off the bench, will be determined by coach Scott Brooks.
“However, at the end of the day, I think Reggie would agree, we have to do what’s best for the team,” Presti said. “Whether that’s starting, coming off the bench. I think we’ve always made our decisions on how to get the most out of what we have, and how to put everybody in position to be successful and play to their strengths.”