BOSTON – Reggie Jackson is the last player remaining in the Thunder’s locker room, and the team’s final bus is scheduled to leave in a few minutes.
He frantically throws items into his shaving kit. He grabs his hoodie, clumsily knocking its hanger onto the floor.
Then, he reaches for the top shelf of his locker.
“Got my baby,” Jackson said as he clutches his basketball.
Growing up, basketball helped Jackson, the son of an Air Force officer, find his way while moving between Italy, England, North Dakota, Georgia, Florida and Colorado. Now, those frequent moves are helping Jackson – at one of the NBA’s most interesting crossroads – find his way in basketball.
Jackson was the only player last season to start 40 games and come off the bench in 40 games, including the playoffs, but that understates the volatility of his role. He has played point guard shooting guard. He has played with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and without those two stars. He has been asked to lead and asked to follow.
If navigating these ever-changing roles weren’t enough, Jackson is preparing to become a free agent next summer, his first chance at a monster NBA payday.
“I think moving has really helped,” Jackson said. “I never really know what tomorrow is going to bring, so it makes it easy for me to just go out there and just work as hard as I can to be the best player I can. Then, whatever circumstance I’m thrown in, I just try to go out there and perform to the best of my ability.”
Lately, the circumstances have meant playing without Durant and Westbrook, both whom aren’t expected back until next month as they rehab from injury. In their absence, Jackson is leading Oklahoma City with 22.8 points and 7.5 assists per game.
He’s filling the role he always envisioned for himself: starting in the NBA.
“I came out and said I wanted to be a starter, so I have to take this opportunity head on,” Jackson said.
At times, the adjustment has been rocky. In Jackson’s first game of the season, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka froze him out after he played selfishly.
“Reggie can play. He can flat out play, Perkins said. “I think the thing that Reggie has to learn is how to make other people better.”
Oklahoma City is scoring just 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the court. Though that’s better than when he sits, the mark would rank in the league’s bottom 10.
Still, it’s unfair to blame Jackson for all the Thunder’s offensive problems. Even beyond Westbrook and Durant, they’re missing several players due to injury, and Jackson has a larger – positive – sample on his résumé. Last season, Oklahoma City scored a respectable 106.8 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on and Westbrook off the court.
Give Jackson a decent supporting cast, and the results could turn quickly. With Anthony Morrow seeing extended minutes for the first time this season after injury, the Thunder played their best offensive game last night in a 109-94 win over the Celtics, posting an offensive rating of 118.9.
Jackson, who had 28 points and eight assists, made good on Boston coach Brad Stevens’ pregame fears of the Oklahoma City point guard crashing into the paint. Jackson shot 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, and he matched that inside game with strong 3-point shooting, including this deep bomb to end the third quarter.
Even more impressive that that buzzer beater, at least in the long term, was Jackson’s interactions with Steven Adams a few minutes earlier.
Before the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained Jackson’s role while Westbrook and Durant sit.
“Continue to lead as that point guard,” Brooks said. “That’s the job of a point guard. It’s to be an extension on the floor of the coach, and he’s done a good job with that.
In that same media session, Brooks also emphasized getting center Steven Adams more involved offensively.
Jackson took care of that by throwing Adams and alley-oop and then setting him up for another good look at the basket. When Boston called timeout, Jackson got in Adams face to hype him up.
“I’m a point guard. That’s my job, to be a coach on the floor,” Jackson said, echoing his coach’s pregame comments. “I was just in his to let him know keep going.”
Can Jackson, who knows his role will change again soon, keep going?
When Durant and Westbrook return, Jackson will return to being a third (or maybe fourth behind Ibaka) option. He’ll get better shots but less of them, and he’ll have fewer opportunities with the ball in his hands.
These are his final opportunities to prove to other teams, not only that he can be a starting point guard, but that he’s worth the huge offer sheet necessary to pry him from Oklahoma City. Whether or not Jackson actually wants to leave the Thunder to start elsewhere – which he reportedly does – it’d be nice to have the option.
For the Thunder, who committed not to trading Jackson like Harden when they couldn’t agree to an extension with him, a dangerous and costly standoff could lurk ahead.
Jackson, joining Daequan Cook and Robert Swift, is slated to become just the franchise’s third player on a rookie-scale contract to become a restricted free agent since Sam Presti became general manager in 2007. Everyone else either signed an extension (Ibaka, Westbrook, Durant and Thabo Sefolosha), was traded (Eric Maynor, James Harden, Lazar Hayward, Cole Aldrich, D.J. White, Byron Mullens, Jeff Green, Johan Petro and Delonte West) or was waived (Mouhamed Sene) before getting that far.
Obviously, Jackson’s negotiations will be much higher stake than Cook’s and Swift’s. The Thunder, who already have $63,569,558 in committed salary for next season plus whatever they agreed to pay Josh Huestis, will carefully consider the luxury-tax implications of keeping Jackson.
What team will Jackson play for? What position will he play? Will he start?
The answers, total mysteries for next season, are only slightly clearer for the rest of this season.
After a childhood of not knowing where he’d live, Jackson is taking the uncertainty in stride.
“I can only deal with today,” Jackson said. “Life is day by day. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m not worried about.”