Stepping Up When Called Upon

One year ago, well before tip-off of an NBA Finals game, sweat was pouring off Reggie Jackson as he pushed through a grueling pre-game workout. He wasn’t even in the lineup that night against the Miami Heat, but was working his absolute hardest to get better, taking advantage of each moment.

Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has used Jackson’s ascent into the rotation as a prime example of how players must stay ready and be prepared at all times. Six months after that Finals series, Jackson earned a chance to be the team’s backup point guard, and when Russell Westbrook was injured on April 24th, Jackson assumed the starting point guard role for the remainder of the postseason.

Jackson’s continued work ethic over the course of the past two years helped him stay sharp, eventually leading to his ability to step in when needed. His journey is an illustration of how important it is for all 15 men on the roster to be constantly vigilant.

“He seized the opportunity,” Presti said. “Obviously, it was unfortunate circumstances in which he was thrust into real action, but I think it bodes well that he was able to handle that situation and perform. It’s not a matter of one day, it’s really the preparation of a period of years.”

Players who log heavy minutes like Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are counted on every night to make an impact, and their consistency is a trademark of their games. Throughout the long season, however, there are inevitably times when both core members of the rotation and those who don’t see frequent minutes are required to generate results for the team. A veteran like Nick Collison has experienced that over the course of his career, and was pleased to see maturity and respect for the process from the team in general and particularly in young players like Jackson, Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb.

“It’s not easy mentally to come in every day, when you know you’re not playing, to do the work,” Collison said. “But I think they became professionals this year with their work ethic.”

Those young players put in the time and energy themselves, but they had wonderful examples to emulate in role players like Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and others who attacked each day of work with the same vigor and intensity regardless of their minutes or touches on the floor.

Whether it was Sefolosha hitting a dagger three-pointer in overtime against the Philadelphia 76ers or Perkins holding Dwight Howard to 1-for-7 shooting in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Thunder rotation players sensed when matchups and situations called for them to take charge.

Durant and Westbrook, who have set the internal standards for the Thunder since the team arrived in Oklahoma City, have been joined by teammates who both vocalize and show young players by example how to be a professional.

“(I learned) just being around different players in the league and being able to see their routines and workouts,” Lamb said. “Great players don’t become great players on accident. It was cool being able to see their work outs, how they eat, the stuff they do on the court, and also the stuff they do off the court.”

With the NBA Draft coming up in nine days, the Thunder may use its three selections to continue incorporating young players onto the roster or deploy those assets in a different way. By learning from players who already live by the Thunder’s always-be-ready mentality, any potential newcomers will have the best possible chance to assimilate into the roster. This past season, players like Jones and Jackson figured out how to best keep themselves in prime position to make the most of potential playing time.

“Just always be ready,” Jackson said. “Enjoy the moment and try to live in it. That’s probably the biggest thing I learned.”

“We’re very prepared,” Jones echoed. “We’re sitting there waiting our turn. It may be the first quarter, it may be the last quarter, but we’re always ready.”