2013-14 Season Look Ahead: featuring Reggie Jackson as Russell Westbrook

USA TODAY Sports

With Russell Westbrook out, Reggie Jackson is the starting point guard for the first 4-6 weeks of the season. It's not an easy job, and while he did well in the playoffs, there are still a lot of holes for Jackson to plug up.

Reggie Jackson is going to be the guy stepping into the starting lineup to replace Russell Westbrook for as long as Westbrook is injured. We got a first glimpse of it in the 2013 playoffs, and now Jackson's opportunity continues. In terms of picking up the load, only Kevin Durant may be asked to do more than Jackson. And, you might notice,  Jackson isn't quite at Durant's level.

Jackson fared pretty well back in May. In the nine postseason games that the Thunder played without Westbrook, Jackson averaged 15.3 points on 47.2% shooting to go with 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. There were plenty of holes in his game, but he did produce well, all things considered. He stepped up as a reliable scoring option in the starting lineup, and recorded at least eight rebounds or eight assists four times in total (though never in the same game).

What makes Jackson interesting within the context of replacing Westbrook is how similar the two are. Obviously, Westbrook is miles ahead of where Jackson is at in terms of development, but Jackson's skillset does resemble that of a Westbrook-lite or perhaps a younger Westbrook.

When considering Jackson, start with his athleticism. He has both quickness with explosive leaping ability, making him very dangerous in the open court. Between his athleticism and also his touch around the rim, Jackson was very good at attacking the rim and finishing with a dunk, a layup or a quirky-looking-but-effective floater. As the numbers indicate, Jackson also compliments his game with strong rebounding numbers for a guard and decent assist numbers.

Jackson's greatest weakness however is his lack of a consistent outside shot. While Jackson shot efficiently from the field in the postseason, it was a different story from behind the three-point line. He shot just 30.2% from three, and it was even worse during the regular season in which he shot for 23.1%. He shot 50% from the right corner-3, and under 20% everywhere else behind the arc. Most of his shot production came from around the rim, where he was most effective. He was somewhat effective with a pull-up jumper from around the elbow/free throw line area, but consistency wasn't much of a theme in his jumpshot overall.

If that skillset sounds familiar, that's probably because of the similarities it bears to an young Westbrook's game. In the early stages of his career, Westbrook was similar to Jackson as a lethal threat in the lane and on the break while complimenting his game with solid rebounding and facilitating (although Westbrook has always held a significant advantage in the latter, even in his rookie season), but desperately needed consistency on his jumpshot.

There's no question that Jackson was fully serviceable in the playoffs. The production he offered was well-balanced and consistent, and it's not totally inconceivable that the Thunder might have been knocked out by Houston in the first round had Jackson not played the way he did. One figures that having a play style so similar to Westbrook's would only make assimilating him into big minutes with the starters an easier job.

However, Jackson doesn't play the Westbrook role perfectly, and it was clear that the Memphis Grizzlies did not fear him as an offensive creator the way they do Westbrook. Given the difference in their talent level, that should be expected to some degree, even with the similarity in their skill sets. At the same time, though, it's a major concern when the offense stalls as a result of Jackson's shortcomings.

Perhaps most notably, Jackson struggled to command attention from the opposing defense. Jackson isn't the multi-dimensional threat that Westbrook is – his court vision isn't as well-developed and his outside shot is inconsistent, essentially limiting him to attacking the rim. While he's dangerous in that regard, defenders were completely comfortable ignoring him to guard Durant, an infinitely more dangerous scorer. The Grizzlies, already a team that liked to pack the strong side of the ball, abused this in the playoffs by essentially centering their entire team defense around Durant.

Look at this play. After a pick-and-roll with Perkins, the Grizzlies have three defenders reacting to Durant. By virtue of Jerryd Bayless helping over to an open Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson is left open in the corner. However, he couldn't make the defense pay for it by making the three. This was a constant theme throughout the playoffs, and part of the reason the Grizzlies were able to game-plan against the Thunder so easily.

This also comes into play with two of the Thunder's favorite plays, the pick-and-roll and the pindown screen they like to run with Westbrook and Durant. In this play, the Thunder first attempt the pick-and-roll with Durant screening for Jackson before going to the pindown screen. While teams would normally trap Westbrook in the pick-and-roll, they can play more conservatively with Jackson.

When the screen is set, the Grizzlies switch temporarily Tony Allen with Mike Conley, who sticks himself right on to Durant's side as Allen contains Jackson. When Conley and Allen switch back, Marc Gasol briefly inches out of the paint to dissuade anything to Durant. After the pick-and-roll fails, the Thunder quickly go into the pindown. This also fails as Allen hounds Durant and Conley is in perfect position to help out on the drive (which he eventually does). It leads to an ugly off-balance jumpshot-thing with Allen right up against Durant and Conley reaching in at the ball. The Thunder are fortunate to get the offensive rebound, but it ends up being moot as Durant misses the open corner three anyway.

Defenses not paying any attention to Jackson on offense is quite possibly the root of all of the Thunder's struggles without Westbrook. Opposing teams that are comfortable sending multiple defenders Durant's way are pressuring the rest of the Thunder to step up, and OKC does not have another established playmaker who can force the defense to respect him. Ibaka's become much better at knocking down jumpers, but creating for himself remains one of the larger flaws in his offensive game. None in the group of Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison are creating offense for themselves, either.

As for Jackson, he can average a solid 15 points per game, but that's not helping much in making up for the loss of Westbrook when it also comes with Durant slipping to 46.1%/33.9%/81.1% shooting. That's a far cry from his 50/40/90 performance in the regular season, and even with all of the extra shots he took in Westbrook's absence, his per-minute scoring actually dropped from the regular season (26.3 points per 36 minutes in the regular season compared to 25.4 without Westbrook).

This isn't something Durant or even Scott Brooks can fix as much as it is on Jackson demanding some attention from the defense. While Brooks can certainly design a few more plays to take the bulk off of Durant, the most important thing for Jackson will be for him to force defenses to respect him on offense. If he's knocking down his jumpshots consistently, that's an enormous improvement already. Drastic improvement in just one summer isn't easy to expect from any player, however. It could be smaller quirks, taking advantage of the tools he already has, that could mean the most.

For example, Jackson's movement away from the ball needs work. As a point guard that scores most of his points off of attacking the rim, he's never going to match the rate of players like Kevin Martin that thrive specifically off of the ball. However, being able to read the defense while he's without the ball can pay dividends. When he doesn't have the ball, Jackson is often stagnant along the perimeter. Just 28.2% of Jackson's field goals last season were assisted upon. This number rose to 40.2% in the playoffs, but it's still not a particularly impressive number.  WIth the defense so concentrated on Durant, there are many opportunities for Jackson to be taking advantage with a simple backdoor cut or curling around a weakside screen. From there, he can take advantage of his ability to finish at the rim. Here is a rare example:

Where Jackson has the ball in his hands, refining his playmaking ability could go a long way for Jackson operating without Durant, especially later in the season when he returns to his sixth man role as the primary offensive threat. Improved ability to work the pick-and-roll in particular would be nice, and having both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison to work it is a luxury few teams have. Both are deadly pick-and-pop weapons. Additionally, if the Thunder go back to trying the pick-and-roll with Jackson and Durant (very likely), being able to take better advantage of a defense so clearly fixated on Durant setting the screen will be huge. Those are straightforward adjustments, and it also forces the defense to account for Jackson as well as Durant. That's essentially the same threat posed by the original Westbrook-Durant combination, just on a lesser scale.

For this season, it's safe to expect at least similar production from last season's playoffs as a baseline. Jackson's numbers from the postseason lined up well with his per-36s from the regular season, putting away any concerns of sample size. It's also likely that Jackson can take another step forward and correct some of the flaws that held him back. Sample size probably comes into play here instead, but for what it's worth, Jackson showed some encouraging signs of improvement in the Thunder's preseason opener against Fenerbahce Ulker of the Euroleague. According to J.A. Sherman, he displayed refined mechanics on his jumpshot and more comfort in passing, which makes me feel a bit more optimistic about him for a few moments if nothing else.

When the games that matter start coming around, we'll get to see just where Jackson has improved. After getting a taste of the spotlight in the playoffs, only to experience an anticlimactic defeat to the Grizzlies, it's hard to imagine that Jackson hasn't come back a better player. We'll see just how much he can alleviate the loss of Westbrook during the early portion of the season, and then after that, we'll see how much of a lift he can give us in the playoffs.

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