By Gethin Coolbaugh, Boston Sports Today
BOSTON -- Zero points, zero assists, zero steals and zero minutes. That's how Reggie Jackson's line read the last time he came to TD Garden. The former Boston College standout was just a seldom-used reserve waiting for an opportunity. Just as his Twitter bio reads, he was a kid chasing a dream.
One year and two months later, that same kid has become a man. Jackson went from a player struggling to crack the rotation to a a centerpiece who made the most of his chance to shine alongside one of the best players in the game, Kevin Durant, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Just a bunch of hard work," Jackson said about his growth following Friday morning's shootaround inside the Garden. "Countless hours of working. In season, offseason. A lot of training and I guess mental toughness and those who were in my circle helped me out getting to this point so far."
Jackson's professional career begin in a very unceremonious fashion. A late first round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Jackson appeared just three times in Oklahoma City's first nine games of a lockout shortened season, and only 45 total, while also spending a little bit of time in the NBA D-League.
Over his first two seasons, Jackson never averaged more than 5.3 points, 2.4 boards or 1.7 assists in 115 games. While he appeared in 25 more games in his second season, Jackson's minutes only saw a slight uptick, going from 11.1 per game to 14.2, and doubts about his ability crept into his head.
"Definitely with the lack of opportunity and then not playing so well in the role I was placed in early," said Jackson. "You just start questioning whether you're going to end up here long enough to really get a chance to make a name for yourself. I had doubts, but I'm happy to be where I'm at right now."
Jackson took a big step forward last summer when Oklahoma City lost the services of star point guard Russell Westbrook due to a torn meniscus in his right knee suffered in the second game of the playoffs, forcing him to miss the remainder of the postseason and handing the reins to Jackson.
Finally given the chance to make his name, Jackson did so with conviction. In nine playoff games as a starter, Jackson scored 10 or more points in each contest and averaged 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists during that span, setting him up perfectly to take his game to the next level this year.
"It's been three years in the making," said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, who drafted Jackson. "He's worked every day since the day we've drafted him, does a great job of coming in and getting his work in. He doesn't miss days. He's a worker, and he's gaining some experiences. Even in the first year, he didn't play. But if you just play and not listen and not study, you're not going to improve.
"You don't always have to be on the court to improve. I thought the first year he improved by just seeing and watching what we do. And then every year, his role is increased. I think he's done a great job with the experience that he had last year in the playoffs, obviously helped going into this season."
Jackson started the year well, averaging 10.3 points in November and 14.2 in December, but he found himself in a similar situation at the end of 2013. Westbrook went down again with another right knee injury that required surgery, thrusting Jackson back into the starting role once more.
And just like he had done in the playoffs the year before, Jackson flourished in the role. Since losing Westbrook, Jackson has helped lead the Thunder to a 10-5 record while equaling or exceeding the 15-point plateau eight times and averaging 15.4 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
"It's opportunity," said Durant when asked what the difference has been for Jackson. "He's a great player. He works hard. But just getting an opportunity to play means a lot, and he's learning on the fly. Being a starting point guard on a team that's looking to play late June ... he's doing such a great job. That's all we can ask from him -- come to work every single day, learn and get better."
Since the calendar turned, Jackson has been playing the best basketball of his life. He set a career high with 27 points in a win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 5 and tied that total in Wednesday's win over the San Antoino Spurs, all while averaging 16.1 points, 4.6 assists and 1.7 steals in 2014.
"It's doing tremendous wonders [for my confidence]," Jackson said about this stretch. "[I'm] just trying to get better, continue to get better. Not just for myself, but for the team coming down this stretch, especially stepping into April. We want to start getting better each and every day, each and every month [with] the possibility of going to the playoffs and trying to do something special."
There's no telling when Westbrook will be back in the fold, although it may be as early as the beginning of February. Until then, Oklahoma City is more than content to roll with the status quo, and Jackson will continue to make a name for himself in this league, just like he's wanted all along.