Make no mistake, Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons were taking a big gamble when plucking backup point guard Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder last season and handing him a five-year, $80 million contract this summer.
The supremely confident Jackson seemed to think more of his game than his coach, his teammates and Thunder fans, and the numbers were firmly on the side of the unbelievers. Van Gundy saw something different, however. He saw in his cockiness a desire to be great. Where others saw some noticeable flaws, mainly a lack of range, mediocre passing numbers and an inability to get to the line, the Pistons saw a player who was one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the game who was in the wrong system and not maximizing his abilities.
The game has paid off for the Pistons. Not only is Jackson coming off his second Eastern Conference Player of the Week award this season, his play is starting to get national attention, and more and more you're seeing Jackson mentioned as a possible All-Star in the Eastern Conference.
One person firmly in his corner is the man whose job he effectively took in Brandon Jennings. Jennings, never one for restraint, called Jackson the best point guard in the East. In a conference with John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Teague and Kemba Walker, it's certainly debatable. But what isn't debatable is that fewer and fewer people are laughing at Jackson's $80 million price tag or his game.
James Herbert has a quality feature story on Jackson exploring his early struggles, work ethic, maturation and relationship with Andre Drummond and Van Gundy. Please read this excellent piece of journalism.
In his first game since that sit-down with his teammates, Jackson had 23 points and a career-high 20 assists, a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. In the final 16 games before hitting free agency, he averaged 19.9 points, 10.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Then he re-signed in Detroit for five years and $80 million in July, a contract that was controversial at the time but not so much anymore. He's continued to put up All-Star numbers in his first season as a full-time starter.
Jackson scored a career-high 40 points against Portland Trail Blazers in November, including 26 in a fourth-quarter comeback. Earlier this month he had 34 points and 16 assists in a victory over the Phoenix Suns, becoming the first Piston to have a 30-15 game since Isiah Thomas in 1988. Down the stretch against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills chanted his name. He's had his share of off-nights, too, but understands that he's going to be expected to bring his best consistently now. That is exactly what he worked for.
Drummond, 22, is indeed one of the best centers in basketball, and Jackson has done his part to make that happen. His smoother 3-point shot off the dribble means teams can't go under Drummond's massive screens. His proficiency with lob passes means teams can't risk giving Drummond room as he rolls. Jackson can make teams pay with floaters whether he makes or misses them -- when he attracts attention, Drummond gets offensive rebounds and scores.
If there's a way to stop the two of them, the league hasn't figured it out. The architect of the team is betting that won't happen.
Also noticing the dynamic Jackson-Drummond pairing is ESPN, who called the duo one of the season's best early surprises (Insider):
Drummond is no one-dimensional beast, either. He boasts a ridiculous two steals per game, easily the most among all NBA centers. And he has turned into a surprisingly adept finisher in the pick-and-roll, converting an impressive 65.4 percent of his attempts as the roll man this season.
Drummond has even catapulted into elite real plus-minus (RPM) territory this season. His 4.2 RPM now places him in the NBA's top 20, and it represents a dramatic improvement over last year's solid 1.3.
Another Piston -- Drummond's pick-and-roll partner, Reggie Jackson -- has joined James Harden as members of an exclusive (but growing) club: players who've left OKC to blossom into prolific scorers. Jackson's 20.5 points per game this season are by far the most of his career.
But Jackson's not simply taking more shots. He's also posting the best true shooting percentage of his career (53.7). And while his assist numbers (6.5 per game) are a bit down from the end of last season in Detroit, they still surpass his dime rate in OKC on a per-possession basis.