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Fans reacts after a 3-point basket by Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Friday, April 8, 2016, in Auburn Hills, Mich. Jackson scored 39 points in the Pistons' 112-99 win. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Reggie Jackson keeps floating toward success

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

It’s hard to gauge where Reggie Jackson stands at this point in his NBA career, five seasons after he was selected 24th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2011 draft. Is he a star or an underachiever? Has he yet to fulfill his potential or has he already reached his ceiling? There are no wrong answers here, only more questions.

Part of that certainly has to do with the up-and-down nature of Jackson’s brief career. The Thunder were title contenders in 2011, and while Jackson was clearly meant to back up Russell Westbrook, it was proven veteran and five-time champion Derek Fisher who held that role. As Fisher’s skills declined, Jackson earned more opportunities to shine, even starting 36 games during the 2013-14 season as Westbrook underwent repairs on his cybernetic frame.

That taste of playing time was enough to whet Jackson’s appetite, however, and we first started to hear grumblings that he wanted an increased role, an unlikely possibility given Westbrook’s radioactive excellence. The Thunder’s tumultuous 2014-15 season would prove to be a turning point.

Westbrook and then-teammate Kevin Durant suffered injuries at the season’s start, but eventually returned and continued their annual postseason quest. Jackson, for his part, was reportedly more focused on playing time and his impending free agency. With such disparate goals came underlying tension, and the Thunder chose to remove the source by dealing Jackson to the Detroit Pistons at the NBA’s trade deadline. Oklahoma City continued to be dogged by injury and missed the playoffs anyway.

Jackson played in just 27 games for Detroit following the trade. But the sample size was enough of an audition to garner a significant contract, a deal for five years and $80 million that was an expectation on what he might produce rather than what he had proven he could.

In his first year as a full-time starter, he put up solid numbers, averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game, while knocking down 43.4 percent of all field goal attempts, including 35.3 percent from three-point range. This type of production comes with a substantial footnote, however, considering he played just 30.7 minutes per game. That’s the lowest average among all of Detroit’s starting lineup, but likely the result of a reported asthmatic condition that affects his overall conditioning.

Given all that, Jackson begins his sixth NBA season as a very good player who falls short of being great, a limitation complicated by his shortened playing time. Much as he’s likely loathe to admit it, there are shades of Westbrook in Jackson’s game, which is marked by an aggressive, attacking style that is punctuated at times by confounding decision-making. A look at Jackson’s per 36 minutes statistics (22.1 points, 7.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds) compare very favorably to Westbrook’s production in his fifth season (23.9 points, 7.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds). Considering Oklahoma City’s uncreative offense was alternately dominated by either Westbrook or Durant, Jackson’s comparable production is particularly impressive.

If Jackson has proven himself superior to Westbrook in any way, it’s through his perimeter shooting, which has improved drastically throughout his short career. During his rookie season, he connected on just 21 percent of his three-point attempts while shooting 1.4 per game (in a total of 45 appearances that season). He took a huge leap two seasons later, averaging 33.9 percent on three-pointers while taking 3.1 attempts per game. That number took a dive during that rocky 2014-15 season spent between OKC and Detroit, but there’s hope that last season’s numbers (35.3 percent on 4.2 attempts) show Jackson is a legitimate threat to space the floor on a team that ranked 21st among all NBA teams in three-point shooting percentage.

Despite his continued growth as a long-range marksman, there is one particular area of Jackson’s offensive repertoire that is truly elite: his ability to connect on floating jump shots. Like his perimeter shooting, Jackson has steadily improved his floater. He took just eight attempts as a rookie, connecting on half of them. During the 2013-14 season, he hit on 54.7 percent (connecting on 29-of-53 attempts).

During his first season as a full-time starter, Jackson made that one of the most reliable weapons in his arsenal, connecting on 65-of-102 floaters for a remarkable 63.7 percent, per NBA.com

 

Jackson’s 65 makes and 102 attempts were the most in the league in both categories. Portland’s C.J. McCollum ranked second with 84 attempts, yet converted these at just 47.6 percent. In fact, of the 20 players who shot the most floaters last season, only one other player (J.R. Smith) shot these at 60 percent or better, per NBAsavant.com.

So what makes Jackson’s shot so special? The floater has always been a shot of convenience, geared to give a smaller player an opportunity to score over a larger rim-protecting opponent.

Jackson himself described the thought process in a 2014 instructional video specifically on the floater or, as he sometimes refers to it, the “no man’s land shot.” That name is an apt descriptor, as Jackson explained, because floating attempts usually take place in the space after when a shooter might pull up for a jumper and before a drive to the rim for a layup, so “you really don’t know what to do” as a defender.

Those two boundaries are of particular note in highlighting Jackson’s efficiency on floaters, as he connected on pull-up jumpers at an impressive 60.4 percent and driving layups at a ridiculous 73.6 percent last season. Respecting his overall efficiency causes the necessary moment of doubt for Jackson to uncoil his deadly floater.

Jackson also benefits from having an amazingly long reach (7-0) for a player that is listed at just 6-3, providing the extra few inches for him to extend over the outreached hand of any shot-blockers in the area. In this highlight, watch as Jackson elevated to get his floating jump shot over Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, who led the league in blocks this past season: 

 

With a preliminary defender still on his hip, Jackson recognized the moment’s hesitation from Whiteside and immediately pushed off the floater, rendering the big man an ineffective bystander as the shot fell through the hoop. 

Jackson is also masterful at using a screener in situations like this. Watch him use the big body of teammate Andre Drummond not once but twice, leaving Washington’s Marcin Gortat utterly helpless: 

 

But Jackson’s efficiency with the floater isn’t limited to just half-court sets, and he feels more than comfortable (and rightfully so) using it on fastbreak opportunities. Watch here as a missed shot led to a Drummond outlet pass to Jackson, who then took on three defenders and confidently nailed the floater over Cleveland’s Mo Williams: 

 

Drummond’s presence can’t be ignored either when analyzing the strength of Jackson’s floater, as defenders (like Gortat above) have to be concerned with the center’s ability to catch a lob at the rim, which he completed at 76.1 percent, per NBA.com. As the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, with Drummond or another teammate, Jackson’s 0.88 points per possession was good enough to place in the 77th percentile among all NBA players.

The floater can look downright ugly at times, a hybrid that isn’t as fluid as a normal jump shot, nor as compact as a standard layup. However, its origins are inherently rooted in efficiency and trying to find a way to minimize a rim protector’s impact on a game. Jackson has managed to capitalize on his elite athleticism while continuing to develop as a player and floor leader. He’s found a way to make the most of momentary lapses in a defender’s concentration, while relying on the strengths of his teammates to become as virtually unstoppable in the paint as any big man.

We’ve likely not seen the best of Jackson, and an improved Pistons roster is primed for postseason success. But as he continues to focus on the things he does well, the picture of who he can be as player and potential superstar becomes just a bit clearer with every passing season.

Reggie Jackson keeps floating toward success

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