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.
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