There’s room for growth with Jackson, but as SVG says, ‘The guy’s been great’

Reggie Jackson is one of eight point guards in the NBA averaging 19 points and six assists a game so far this season
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons pumped a wealth of resources into their scouting department under Stan Van Gundy. They leaned on the breadth of their collective affirmation of Reggie Jackson’s potential before signing off on last February’s trade with Oklahoma City.

At the heart of the question about Jackson was this: Would the success he’d experienced as Russell Westbrook’s backup carry over if entrusted with the greater responsibilities of being a team’s starting point guard and franchise centerpiece?

They might have just called Memphis coach Dave Joerger instead. He knew a little before then that Jackson would flourish if given the chance to start.

“His rookie year,” Joerger said last week when the Grizzlies came to The Palace. “They know what they’re doing (in Oklahoma City) and that was a good pick. He’s a stud all the way and was, I thought, early.”

The Pistons went all in on Jackson from the moment of the trade. After getting a 27-game sample of him last season, they felt even more certain of tying their future to Jackson’s star.

The fact Jackson was a pending restricted free agent didn’t cause either side much angst, Van Gundy signaling the team’s clear intent to retain Jackson no matter what might happen on the open market. When they agreed to a reported five-year, $80 million deal, eyebrows were raised across the league. Van Gundy anticipated that reaction – and didn’t really care.

“We thought that he was a top half of the league, at least, starting point guard who hadn’t had the opportunity,” Van Gundy said. “When you start looking around what those guys are worth, we thought we got a great deal. So a 25-year-old guy and we paid him $10 million less than the Heat did for (Goran) Dragic at 30. We were pretty sold on Reggie – not only that he was good enough but also just his whole approach that he really wants to get better.”

As much as for his devastating penetration ability – Jackson, at 8.3 points per game, is second to Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan on points generated by driving to the basket – the Pistons went to the altar with Jackson because they’re sold on his competitive drive and devotion to winning.

“The guy really wants to get better,” Van Gundy said. “I sit and watch film with him after almost every game. He’s a guy you can coach and you can criticize. We thought he would be very good, he has been very good and we said at the time people were criticizing us that we thought down the road that deal would look like a bargain. Right now, you look at guy whose numbers say he’s in the top seven or eight point guards in the league, you’d have to say that’s true.”

Jackson is averaging 19.4 points and 6.4 assists through the season’s first 25 games, making him one of only eight point guards at those levels – the guys who for the most part will also lead All-Star voting: Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe, Damian Lillard and John Wall the others. His assists were down and his turnovers up a little early in the season as the offense bumped along, integrating two new starters and five new rotation pieces, but things are trending positively. He was superb in Saturday’s 22-point win over Indiana with 21 points and nine assists against only one turnover.

But being a point guard is always about more than the numbers and Jackson came to the Pistons understanding that he’d have to embrace all of those other aspects of the role – starting with being the pulse of his team – in order to be recognized as the player he wants to be seen as.

“I’m going to get the burden of us losing. I know that’s going to happen in the media. I’m going to take those responsibilities,” he said. “If it’s my ship and it’s going to sink, I’m going to let you know how it’s supposed to be run. I’m not going to sit here and just let things go when we could be a better team. I know it’s my role.”

Van Gundy is conscious of the burden placed on Jackson, who in many respects has more on his shoulders than most because of the makeup of the roster. Where Westbrook has Kevin Durant to share the onus of having to be the player to make plays off the dribble, and Lillard has C.J. McCollum and Bledsoe has Brandon Knight and Thomas has Marcus Smart, Curry has Klay Thompson and Lowry has DeRozan, the Pistons don’t really have a secondary ballhandler to place alongside Jackson.

Maybe when Brandon Jennings returns, expected later this month, Van Gundy will look for spots to use both in tandem to share the load.

“It’s a hard job because so much is on him,” Van Gundy said. “We put the ball in his hands, we expect a lot and we need him to play well. We’re not going to win many games where he’s having a bad night, so that’s some pressure on him. Mentally, it’s wearing because you know it’s on you and you want that role. I told Reggie when he first came, he wanted a bigger role and I said everybody says that, but they don’t always think of what goes with that.

“The guys who are going to have the ball in their hands a lot, yeah, you get a lot of opportunities. You also are going to be the guy who’s going to be criticized a lot. You’re expected to do a lot more than other people. He’s handled it very well. I think he understands and accepts the responsibility and knows that there’s going to be good and bad. He moves on pretty well.”

The intriguing thing for Van Gundy and the Pistons is that Jackson has played less than two-thirds of an NBA season – 52 games – as his team’s full-time starting point guard. There’s plenty of growth potential left, mostly in the area of decision making that comes with repetition and experience. Van Gundy expects improvement based on the evidence of seeing so much of it already.

“I think he’s gotten a lot better,” he said. Van Gundy would like Jackson to be more aggressive attacking the basket early in games, he said, instead of settling for jump shots.

Then he stops himself.

“I don’t have too many complaints,” he smiled. “The guy’s been great.”

Or as Joerger put it, “He’s a good player. That’s understating it a bit. He’s a very good player.”