There are very few, if any, surprises revealed by players or coaches during Media Day, an annual event held by each NBA team just prior to the start of training camp. These question-and-answer sessions typically involve banal talk of what the players did during the offseason, what they expect for the coming season and impressions of incoming players. While these and related topics were indeed discussed at the various teams’ sessions, something rare happened this year at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Media Day when guard Reggie Jackson took the microphone.
Jackson became emotional when describing why he will not be satisfied until he locks down a regular starting role. He made his desire known during exit interviews last season when he simply disclosed he would like a starting role. His statement garnered attention back then; fast forward four months, and Jackson has now elevated his stance to a proclamation.
“I want to be a starter,” Jackson said. “I’ve always wanted to be a starter. I’ve always wanted to be great. All the greats I’ve seen started, so that’s kind of the mold.”
That statement wasn’t necessarily the surprising part. It was his accompanying heartfelt and earnest explanation regarding why starting was so important to him that brought the media room to a collective standstill. As Jackson spoke of his childhood dreams, he was candid and quietly impassioned. Some may discount his spiritual-laced words; others will completely understand.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself,” Jackson said. “I’ve definitely had doubts in myself, but most of the time, I’m a very confident individual. I believe I put in the work, and I believe I’m blessed by my God to do some miraculous things. I think we all have (been blessed) in life, and we’ve just got to find out what it is. I just want to go out there and compete, and I guess that’s probably where my competitive nature comes from.
“I feel like I’m blessed beyond wildest measures. So to me, I don’t want to – this is just how I feel, I don’t know how people will take it – I don’t want to disrespect my God by settling. I think me and everybody else has a reason and a chance to go out there and be great in whatever aspect they want in life, and I’ve always tried to do my best. That’s kind of how I approach life. My family taught me, and especially my brothers growing up, that I always wanted a chance to be great. That’s my destiny.”
It was a moving statement and real moment shared by a basketball player and the media who cover him. Realistically, though, how can Jackson work into a starting role for this Thunder team? He is a 6’3 point guard, and the Thunder already have an All-Star player at that position in Russell Westbrook. Jackson got a taste of life as a Thunder starter last season when Westbrook was sidelined by a third knee procedure. He started in 36 games as the floor general, averaging 14.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 31.2 minutes. In his 44 games as reserve, he averaged 12.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 26.2 minutes. When coach Scott Brooks decided that then-starting two-guard Thabo Sefolosha wasn’t getting the job done in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, he inserted Jackson into the starting lineup mid-series along with Westbrook in the backcourt. The experiment was deemed a success, leading to hopes that this backcourt duo could work in the long-term. Jackson was the third leading scorer (11.8 points) in the series, starting in four of the six games.
With Sefolosha departing Oklahoma City in the offseason, the starting two-guard position is wide open. Training camp should prove to be a battleground with Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson and Anthony Morrow all vying to nab the starting slot. If Jackson fails to earn a starting role by the season opener, the team may have a disgruntled teammate on their hands. Of course, Brooks may finally see the advantage of crafting lineups based on matchups, which would surely result in Jackson logging time as a starter, but it may not be enough to satisfy him.
“He always tells me he wants to be a starter,” Lamb said of Jackson’s aspirations. “If you don’t want to be the starter (or) try to be the best, then there’s something wrong with you. Of course, we both want to be the best. We both are trying to get better every year.”
Many feel Jackson is the ideal sixth man for the Thunder and wish he would just embrace this specific role. His ability to lead the second unit and put points on the board are valuable and needed traits. However, a sixth man role is not what he wants.
“I want a chance to be great,” Jackson said. “If it doesn’t work, oh well, at least I tried. That’s just how I feel. The best ones I remember have always been starters. I can’t recall a super sixth man. I never thought it growing up, I never felt like that.
“They make great contributions, and it takes everybody to be on a team,” he added quickly. “I’m not doubting that.”
Please take no offense, Manu Ginobili.
“No, he’s special,” Jackson pointed out about the Spurs’ sixth man. “Things he’s done back in his community, the things he’s done in Argentina, what he’s accomplished in this league. I want the majority of my time to be spent playing against other starters. I want to play against the best. I want to play against Chris Paul. I want to play against Kyrie Irving. I want to be considered playing against those guys. I want to be mentioned in the highest of levels. I want to get a chance to just go out and play and be the best I can be, to be considered among the best. I want to be the best.”
This is an athlete who carries deeply-held convictions about his place in the world. Every word he spoke was presented with sincerity and refreshing honesty. Would Jackson ever be content with the Thunder’s sixth man role?
“I can be content, but I’ll still always want to be better,” Jackson said. “I can be the number-one player at my position at point guard in the league, but I’ll still want to be the best player in the league. I want to be the best in the world. That’s how I wake up every day. That’s how I approach my workouts. That’s just how I am. That’s just who I am.”
You certainly can’t knock a guy for wanting to be the best in his field. Not many players purposefully set out to become the best reserve in the NBA. However, the reality of the situation must become clear to Jackson. He’s a very talented player, but he has room for improvement. He outlined those aspects of his game that need work.
“Technically, just improving my shot,” Jackson said. “Of course, I stay aggressive in attacking the basket, but I continue to work on my long-range shot, three-point, outside (shot). I’m putting in a lot of reps. I may not see that shot at all, but I’m just comfortable throwing up from wherever it is on the floor. Russ and KD can shoot from anywhere. Just get better on the three-point, that’s where I have to make the biggest leap. Getting comfortable to where I can find shots in the mid-range or I can hit that consistently and make plays for the rest of my team to be the best teammate and player I can be.”
Unfortunately, that list didn’t include the one critical area that needs the most attention: developing solid defense. That’s the Thunder’s calling card. Sefolosha is a long-armed defensive-stopper, who was charged with guarding opponents’ best shooters while he was in Oklahoma City. Others may be better suited for the role, such as two-way player Lamb, sharpshooter Morrow or defensive-minded Roberson. Still, Jackson remains undeterred; he’s set on proving to Brooks that he deserves the starting position.
“I’ve got to show them I’m the best candidate for it,” Jackson said of the two-guard opening. “Be the player I know I am. That job has certain aspects to fulfill it. I’m just going to focus on being myself while in camp. I don’t figure out who makes the rotations or anything like that. I guess in my mind maybe I do – how things I would like maybe for them to go – but after that, it’s not what I get paid to do. I tried to improve my game this the summer, and hopefully I can show that. If not, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
One thing he can do is sign a contract extension with the Thunder. Now entering his fourth year in the league, Jackson, 24, is eligible and both sides appear to be working on it. Whether it gets done by the October 31 deadline is not clear. Should an extension not be signed, Jackson would then hit restricted free agency next summer. In this crazy market, the Thunder may or may not be willing to match other offers.
Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager and executive vice president, addressed Jackson’s future and potential contract extension at his annual preseason press conference.
“We want to invest in Reggie,” said Presti, according to The Oklahoman. “There’s not a lack of clarity in that regard. I think we’ve been pretty clear about his importance to the team. We see him as a core member of the team, a core member of the organization.
“These things aren’t easy to do,” he said with regard to completing an extension by the deadline. “But we’re gonna give it our maximum, best chance to make it happen, knowing that if it doesn’t, we come back at it next summer and pick it up again.”
As for a possible preseason trade, akin to the James Harden surprise trade, Presti said, “That’s just not something we’ve considered. He’s a guy we see being here for a long time.”
These sound like reassuring words, but is it sufficient reassurance to believe in his long-term future in OKC?
“My representation and Sam and the Thunder organization, they’re talking,” Jackson shared. “We’ve got a month to try to get things done; hopefully we can figure that out. I definitely like being a part of this team. Let’s just hope they make progress on things. It’s not something that anybody has to talk about anymore or think about it and we can just focus on the season.”
That’s not going to be the case. This topic will be discussed ad nauseam until resolution comes, one way or another. In the meantime, Jackson is focused on aiming for the top.
“It’s hard to believe I’m in my fourth year,” Jackson said. “I’m just blessed. I don’t want anybody to ever believe I’m not thankful. I’m blessed to even be one of 450 (NBA players). To wake up, I’m blessed. To be here, I’m so thankful just to be in this position. I’ve just always wanted more. I’ve always wanted a chance at just more. I’ve always strived to be in the top percentile of whatever I’m doing in life. I want to be the best person I can be. I want to be the best at my craft. I just strive to be great in everything that I do. I can be content, but I still want more.”
Jackson held nothing back, giving us a full account of who he is at his very core and how he expects his professional life to unfold. His stint with the Thunder may not fulfill his lofty desires, but such a designed focus should keep him always moving forward.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.