Is Reggie Jackson ready?
That was the question everyone wanted to know when news broke that Eric Maynor would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
“Only tonight and the rest of the season will prove it,” Jackson said Sunday, 90 minutes before being bumped up to point guard as Russell Westbrook's primary backup. “I've prepared myself as much as I can up to this point. But we'll see. I'm definitely going to come out with a tremendous amount of confidence.”
In his first game receiving meaningful minutes, Jackson scored 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting while chipping in four assists and one rebound. He turned it over twice but showed poise and, most importantly, promise that suggests the Thunder will be all right with a rookie now running the second unit.
“I thought he did a good job,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That's a tough position, to be the backup point guard. And I thought he did well. He really controlled the team.”
Those words were once reserved for Maynor.
Now, the Thunder must adjust without one of the league's steadiest floor generals. Maynor, you could argue, was the team's second best passer and playmaker behind James Harden. When Maynor came to town, Oklahoma City's second unit became one of the best in basketball.
“Eric has been a great extension of the coaching staff on the floor,” Brooks said. “He has a great feel for that second unit, and we've always felt that our second unit had a chance to either increase the lead or catch up if needed.”
That's what's at stake with this shake-up.
But Brooks has raved about Jackson's training regimen. Jackson, Brooks has often said, might put in too many hours. Brooks called Jackson a sponge who just “wants more.”
“Those were my games,” Jackson explained, “working out and preparing myself just in case something like this happens, which none of us ever wanted to happen.”
Jackson's assigned assistant coach is Brian Keefe. Before games, after shoot-arounds and any time the practice schedule permits, the two pair up to improve Jackson's game. It's not uncommon for Jackson to arrive at Chesapeake Energy Arena four hours before tip-off to get his customary pre-game workout in.
“I always challenge myself,” Jackson said. “I want to be the first one in and the last one out.”
With Keefe, Jackson has undergone rigorous sessions of shooting and conditioning, as well as simulating a transition game and the team's sets on offense. During games, to most of which he's had a front-row seat, Jackson said he challenged himself mentally. He thought about things like the clock situation and point differential, who's hot and who's not and timeouts and fouls.
The preparation paid off in Sunday's 108-96 win against the Spurs, as Jackson played 23 minutes and blended in without missing a beat.
“He played well tonight,” said Nick Collison. “The problem with this season is we don't get a lot of practice, so he's going to have to pick up a lot of things. But tonight was a good start.”
Jackson checked in for the first time with 2:40 remaining in the first quarter. When guard Daequan Cook and center Nazr Mohammed entered one minute later, putting the 5-man B Team on the floor, the second string peeled off a 13-4 run to take a 33-22 lead. By no means was Jackson the catalyst. But he scored two points and didn't mess up.
Throughout the rest of the contest, Jackson played under control and took what the defense gave him. When there was a driving lane, he attacked. When the ball swung to him, he squared up and shot with confidence. Defensively, he stuck to his man like glue and showed potential for being more of a pest than Maynor was.
“He's a smart kid, and he's really receptive to what the coaches are teaching him,” Collison said. “But there are going to be some bumps. Tonight was a great game for us. But there will be other games when it doesn't go as well, I'm sure.”
Jackson might be too naïve to realize that harsh reality. But the rookie's confidence comes from his ability to always fall back on his work ethic and enthusiasm for preparation.
“That's how you become better each and every day,” Jackson said. “So that's what I'm going to do from this day on.”