ORLANDO, Fla. — Before every Oklahoma City Thunder game, and after nearly every practice, Reggie Jackson would run himself ragged.
He would arrive before most and stay later than almost everyone.
On most days, only three other people joined him on the court, and they weren't even players. One would be assistant coach Brian Keefe. The other two were Dave Bliss and Josh Longstaff, the Thunder's video analysts.
Every day, the three of them put the rookie guard through a rigorous individual workout, one designed to improve Jackson's shooting, passing, dribbling and decision-making. Before the workout would end, Jackson had to make his way through a maze of a drill. It started out beyond the 3-point line and began with Bliss setting a bogus ball screen before transforming into a defender.
Over and over and over again, Jackson simulated the pick-and-roll. He used Bliss' 6-foot-10 inch frame to free himself from the feisty 5-8 Longstaff. Keefe stationed himself in the corner. He was Jackson's outlet. Jackson was responsible for reading and reacting to the defense. At times, he would improvise.
His primary options were to attack the rim, pullup for a jumper or kick it to Keefe before replacing him in the right corner and firing up a 3 after getting the ball back.
On Tuesday, in the Thunder's second summer league game in Orlando, we saw all that work start to show results.
In the Thunder's 78-74 loss to Indiana, Jackson was in complete command of Oklahoma City's offense. He exploited the Pacers' pick-and-roll coverage all day, at times making it appear as if he still was playing against dummy defense.
“Their defenders are maybe slightly better than Dave and Josh,” Jackson joked when asked how different those workouts are to what he's now seeing as the Thunder's summer league leader.
“But it's helping in a variety of ways. It's keeping me on my toes, keeping me attacking all the time. I used to come off (the screen) passive, always looking for the pass. But I'm trying to come off aggressive and just scan the whole floor. Now I got to get a little bit more under control with five guys and just understand everybody's game and get a feel for getting everybody going early, but also getting myself going also.”
Jackson's final stat line looked pedestrian, especially for a summer league game: 13 points, 5-for-15 shooting, four assists and three turnovers. But those totals didn't come close to telling the story of how much more comfortable and confident Jackson looked Tuesday.
He was in charge. He was decisive. He was effective.
“Reggie is in a learning process,” said Thunder summer league coach Mark Bryant. “He did much better today. He found people today. He went to the hole strong today. He's getting better. As the week has gone along, he's getting more comfortable with the role of playing point guard.”
Jackson, the 24th overall pick in 2011, figures to start the season behind Eric Maynor once again. But if last year taught us anything, it's that Jackson must be ready for duty at a moment's notice. When an early season knee injury sidelined Maynor for the year, Jackson was thrust into the primary backup role behind Russell Westbrook.
If he didn't look ready it's because he wasn't. How could he have been? He was thrown into the fire and expected to perform for a high-level, championship-contending team right away as a rookie.
But when Jackson's job was snatched from him with the signing of Derek Fisher, the rookie didn't start crying about it. He started cramming information.
“I mean, you want to play but you can't really be bitter,” Jackson said of his demotion. “It was Eric's spot in the beginning. I filled in, and then they felt like the best move was to get Derek Fisher. I feel like it was a good move, too. We made the Finals. Unfortunately, we didn't win it all. But I got to learn from a great veteran.”
Now, the game is slowing down for him, and Jackson is impressing his coaches more and more by making the right decisions.
“It definitely slowed down from (Monday) to (Tuesday),” Bryant said. “It's going to even slow up tomorrow and the next day. He's feeling his way through. This is what this summer is all about, learning, feeling your way through and playing in an NBA atmosphere. And he's getting better.”
Jackson has a tendency to be indecisive and over-dribble at times. But he was as assertive as he's ever been Tuesday, attacking the rim with force or pulling up to hit the roll man or take the free-throw-line extended jump shot.
He wasn't perfect, of course. Jackson still over-penetrates on occasion, which takes away his ability to see the whole floor and make the proper play with ease. And his defense against Pacers guard Lance Stephenson was largely nonexistent, as Stephenson racked up a game-high 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting to go with seven assists and zero turnovers.
But all in all, growth is evident.
“He made great decisions with the ball,” said forward Perry Jones. “Obviously, we trust in him having the ball the whole time. He didn't have to swing it as much, but we knew he'd make the right decisions and we knew he was going to be aggressive and attack. That's what he did for us. He got to the rim for us, he got people easy shots. What more can you ask from him?”