by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
This was the moment that Reggie Jackson had prepared for, the silver lining he had created for himself after being sent down to the NBA D-League this past December for the second time in his young NBA career. Initially the demotion had caused him to slightly doubt, not so much whether he was good enough—like most professional athletes, confidence is not something that Jackson lacks—but rather whether he would ever be given a fair shot. Instead, Jackson decided to, as the cliché goes, make lemonade. He would take advantage of the opportunity he was given and work on his game in ways that he couldn’t while up in the NBA.
And then it happened. Russell Westbrook went down and suddenly Reggie Jackson, the rare pro athlete who has spent most of his career having “the other” added to the beginning of his name out of respect for the baseball legend renowned for his October heroics, was an NBA player who mattered. He was being given the chance that he so desperately wanted—and took advantage of it by averaging 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game in nine Playoff starts.
Yes, the Thunder fell to the Grizzlies in five games in the second round of the Playoffs. But Jackson’s performance in Westbrook’s stead had validated his previous search for a silver lining and, perhaps more interestingly, created a separate one for the Thunder. What if Westbrook’s injury had created a development opportunity for a talented player who, until then, had yet to receive one? What if that slight meniscus tear had allowed the cash-strapped Thunder to learn that James Harden’s (and free agent Kevin Martin’s) replacement may already be under contract?
And if you were searching for a third banana, wouldn’t you want a player who in high school had to be told to stop working out so much because he was overworking his body? And one whose friends and former coaches describe him as a “basketball nerd” who treats the sport like a science that requires studying? A 23-year-old astute enough and mature enough to understand what aspects of his game he needs to most improve in order to become a successful NBA player.
“One of the big things I need to work on now is that corner three,” Jackson says, just days after his season comes to an end. “Playing with guys like Russell and KD, that’s a shot I’m going to be getting a lot.”
The scary part: In the Playoffs Jackson shot 7-17 from the corners, according to NBA.com. This despite the fact that those who know him best say that they were able to spot a technical flaw in his shooting form, one which they say led to his otherwise erratic post-season shooting performance (13-43 from behind the arc overall).
“The whole Playoffs, me and my dad kept noticing that he was dipping his left shoulder for some reason, especially when he’s wide open,” says Jackson’s long-time friend and former high school teammate, Zach Hawkins. Hawkins’ father, Rob, was an assistant coach at Palmer HS in Colorado Springs, CO, when Jackson was there. Rob Hawkins, as well as Jackson’s high school coach, Jimmy Grantz, are also both very quick to point out that while he was in high school, the Denver Post wrote an article about Jackson saying that his range starts when he steps off the bus.
Point being: The athleticism and strength and off-the-dribble creativity of the 6-3, 208-pound Jackson have never been questioned. But the skill that has, and the one that he’ll need most going forward, well, that might turn out to be his greatest strength of all. It certainly once was.
Jackson shot 42 percent from behind the arc as a junior in his final season at Boston College, this after failing to cross the 30 percent threshold the two seasons before. High school was a similar story. Freshman year, Jackson failed to make varsity. Sophomore year, he got called up from JV, but couldn’t crack the team’s starting five.
It wasn’t until his junior year that Jackson, as Rob Hawkins says, “realized that you can’t just say you want to play in the NBA, but you have to recognize what it is you have to do and start doing it. So that’s when we started doing things differently. Instead of doing high school workouts, we’d do NBA stuff—like Jason Terry’s shooting workout—and watch NBA film.”
That Jackson is a person who’d rather watch an episode of Tom and Jerry instead of going out to a party—“In high school, he and my son would go out and be back and asleep by 9,” Hawkins says—meant that there was more time to do so. Even to this day Jackson would rather do, well, almost anything other than go to a club.
“The last time I went out to visit him in Oklahoma City, we played Jeopardy on Xbox all night,” Zach Hawkins says. “I didn’t even know that existed.”
And a month ago, the majority of the sports world didn’t know that another Reggie Jackson did. Jackson’s team might not have known that this type of player existed on their roster, either. Now, though, everyone—the Thunder, its fans and the NBA—is on the verge of getting acquainted.