Pistons' Jackson starting to look like $80M bargain

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson

Heading to the team bus before Saturday night’s game at Indiana, Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson felt like he needed to make his presence known.

Walking down a ramp under Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Jackson playfully bumped 6-foot-11 center Andre Drummond and made a path for himself.

“Big man coming through,” Jackson yelled emphatically.

In one of dozens of playful encounters between Jackson and Drummond, it was an odd juxtaposition.

In many ways, they’re both big men for the Pistons.

Jackson, who came to the Pistons after a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder midway through last season, has assumed a leadership mantle both on and off the court. In 29 games, he showed enough to earn a five-year contract and to be the point guard of the present, as a centerpiece along with Drummond.

Not only does he have the ball in his hands most of the time on offense, he has the fate of the Pistons along with it. The hope is that through teaching and watching more and more film, the decisions get better.

It’s never going to be perfect; there are going to be some bad decisions.

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“He’s done a good job — it’s a hard job because so much is on him,” Pistons coach/president Stan Van Gundy said. “We put the ball in his hands, we expect a lot and we need him to play well.

“We’re not going to win many games where he’s having a bad night — that’s some pressure on him.”

Jackson, though, has responded well to the pressure. He’s leading the team in scoring (19.9 points) and has shown flashes of elevating himself to one of the best point guards in the league.

He’s already had a highlight reel of games that he’s taken over, with five games of 30-plus points, including the career-high 40 at Portland in November. Jackson has been recognized twice as Eastern Conference player of the week so far this season and has taken well to his new role.

It’s a far cry from last season, when he was sick and vomited before his first game with the Pistons.

“He’s done a good job of just playing within himself,” Drummond said. “Everybody has those first-game jitters; he’s been paid a lot of money and there’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

“He’s done a good job of settling down and making our team better.”

Jackson, 25, has had to build himself mentally and as a leader to gain his teammates’ respect as a leader. It’s been somewhat easier, given that it’s a young roster, with Ersan Ilyasova the oldest starter, at 28.

But just as Jackson has succeeded for most of the season, he’s had some difficult games, as well. Although he’s scored in double figures in each of the last 12 games — averaging 20.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists and shooting 36 percent on 3-pointers — he had his worst game of the season the game before that, with just four points on 2-of-9 shooting in a 20-point loss at the Charlotte Hornets.

While he’s still figuring things out, it’s going to be an up-and-down proposition. After almost every game, he and Van Gundy sit and review video, looking for ways that he can be more aggressive or to make better reads on what the defense is giving him.

“You’ve just got to be aggressive and make the right reads. As long as I play that way, sometimes assists will come and sometimes points will come,” Jackson said. “You can’t necessarily just look at stats; you have to look at the results and the way that we’re playing.”

“He just points out decisions I’m making and if I’m attacking or not and where we see gaps and where we can see more of the good and less of the bad.”

So far this season, there’s been plenty more good than bad — and the signs are pointing more and more to Jackson being worth every bit of the five-year, $80 million contract he signed in the offseason.

“We said at the time — and people were criticizing us — that we thought down the road that deal would look like a bargain,” Van Gundy said. “When you look at (Jackson), his numbers say he’s in the top seven or eight point guards in the league and you’d have to say that’s true.”

Forward process

Following Tuesday’s 12-point loss at the New York Knicks, which extended their skid to three games, Jackson let some of the frustration out.

“I’m tired of losing; I’m tired of watching (opposing) fans walk out up 15, knowing they’re going home excited about a win,” he vented. “The season’s not even halfway through. This playoff thing we’re talking about is not guaranteed. If we want to be there, we have to come out and play like we want to be there.”

Stan Van Gundy on Reggie Jackson: “We put the ball in his hands, we expect a lot and we need him to play well."

Those are strong words from a player who has yet to play a full season as a starting point guard. Jackson realizes it’s part of the learning process, though.

Sometimes it might mean saying the unpopular thing. Sometimes it might mean having teammates get mad.

But if it’s the truth, it might not matter in the long run.

“Mentally, it’s wearing on you. You know it’s on you and you want that role,” Van Gundy said. “At the same time, I told him when he came here: He wanted a bigger role and I said, ‘Everybody says that but they don’t always think about what goes with that.’ ”

Jackson joined Drummond on a trip to Grand Rapids to watch Brandon Jennings play in a D-League game as he rehabbed from an Achilles injury. But Jackson said part of the trip also was to support Reggie Bullock and rookie Darrun Hilliard, who also were playing with the Drive that night.

It happened to be the night after the Pistons played in the longest game in franchise history — a four-overtime marathon against the Chicago Bulls.

That showed a level of sacrifice, but he’s also gotten plenty of arrows thrown his way for some of his decision-making with the ball. He’s learning the balance between dribbling too much and getting his teammates involved.

He’s finding an equilibrium in probing to find times to take over a game or to try to feed a hot shooting hand.

“You have a lot of opportunities, but you’re the guy who’s going to be criticized a lot because you’re expected to do a lot more than other people,” Van Gundy said. “He’s handled it very well. And he understands and accepts the responsibility and knows there is going to be some good and bad — and he moves on pretty well.”

This year, he’s hoping to move on to the postseason, ending the Pistons’ six-year playoff drought.

Reaching for the top

Reggie Jackson has played at an All-Star level and ranks among the top five point guards in several categories in the Eastern Conference this season.

Points: 19.9 (3rd)

Rebounds: 4.1 (T-5th)

Assists: 6.4 (5th)

Double-doubles: 4 (T-3rd)

Magic at Pistons

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Monday, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD-Plus/WMGC

Outlook: The Pistons have lost four of five and have dipped in the Eastern Conference standings. ... The Magic have five players who score in double figures, led by Nikola Vucevic (16.8 points, 8.5 rebounds).