Updated: December 18, 2013 at 5:55 am
DENVER - In between chomps of the requisite mouthguard, Reggie Jackson nods to the instructions live-streaming from Kevin Durant.
Yes, yes. OK. Got it.
He is Kevin Durant, after all. Kevin Durant instructions are instructions you absorb.
This is hardly a one-sided conversation in the Thunder's layup line, however. The new Reggie Jackson makes an appearance.
He instructs back, gesturing to a spot under the basket. Durant nods in return.
"I think mostly it's my confidence (that's changed)," Jackson, a Palmer grad, said Tuesday when Oklahoma City thumped Denver 105-93 at Pepsi Center. "I think experience is the best teacher for anybody."
To be clear, this glowing evaluation isn't the hometown paper heaping praise on the hometown product doing the hometown proud. Not in the least.
This is a ballplayer becoming a Ballplayer. You have to look close, though, and not through the lens of star-driven highlight reels.
Jackson's is not an easy evolution to notice. His development is masked under the glare of Durant's star and hidden behind an elite point guard, Russell Westbrook.
Jackson's growth is subtle, like it snuck up on us. Through nine games in December, he was averaging 14.7 points, a leap from his career average of 5.8. His shooting numbers are up, his efficiency ratings are up. Why? His minutes are up.
With a hint of swag, Jackson now talks not of how he belongs in the rotation of the team favored to win the Western Conference. He talks about how he longs, for more.
"I'm not satisfied with being a rotation player. I'm not satisfied with being a starter" he said. "Every day I wake up, I want to be the greatest. That's what strives me. I want to be the best, point-blank."
Big talk from a bench player.
That's the catch. Jackson isn't a bench player. He's better than that. I see a two-way player who's now ready to bust out, like he did with a steal and score in the second quarter Tuesday against the Nuggets. Once Jackson checked into the game, a Thunder deficit flipped to an eight-point halftime lead.
"Reggie's done a great job coming in and giving us good minutes off the bench," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's a good player. He understands the role is very important."
This isn't a knock on the bench, either. A powerful cast of reserves is, perhaps, the most underappreciated element of a winning NBA formula.
The stars shine brightest in the NBA. But the stars don't shine if their role players are dull. Role players are why the Thunder was 19-4 and providing consistently brilliant entertainment, versus why the Knicks are 7-17 and an utter disaster.
The cast of role players around stars Durant and Westbrook is reliable. The cast around star Carmelo Anthony is a dumpster fire of bad knees and worse attitudes.
Go ahead, big-city GM. Spend the house on the star. But if there's not enough left to build a foundation of capable role players, the house is destined for rubble.
In OKC, Jackson will be a role player. It's more than one man's belief, however, that Jackson has grown out of those shoes. One scout said Jackson's production is limited only by his minutes. Another one said he's "not deferring as much" and "he's more comfortable." Why? More minutes.
Really, look close: Jackson is a two-way player blessed with the talent to score and the desire to defend. Those who do both — who want to do both — aren't easy to find.
"Why not?" he cracked when I asked if he longs to be an NBA starter.
"I've looked at Jordan growing up. I looked at the greats. That's how I look at it. It's fun having a role and competing, but every day I woke up at 5 in the morning in high school, getting shots up, I never said, 'I want to be a bench player.'
"I always woke up to be the greatest. That's how I still wake up each and every day I go to the gym, to be the best. To be the best, I think you eventually have to get to a starting role."
In a perfect world for Nuggets basketball, I would bring Jackson home to Colorado. Picture him a starter, next to Ty Lawson. The Nuggets are not getting enough from the off-guard position, and Lawson and Jackson could interchange positions. In the new NBA, positions are nebulous. Cookie-cutter lineups are so 1993; versatility is in.
"I don't think that's for me to decide," Jackson said.
His diplomacy is admirable.
But Jackson is more than his current role, a dangerous sixth man who actually was the eighth man for the Thunder against the Nuggets.
With the Thunder, behind an Olympic gold medalist in Westbrook, he's stuck.