Last season, the Detroit Pistons learned a painful lesson. Few teams can go from having their best player the year before turn into one of their worst players the next season, and the 2016-17 Pistons were no exception.
Reggie Jackson helped lead the Pistons to the playoffs in 2015-16 and expectations were raised both for the point guard and his squad, but he was stricken with knee tendinitis before the preseason began last year. He received platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections and missed the first 21 games of the season.
He wasn’t the same Reggie Jackson when he returned.
The Pistons struggled mightily when he returned, and a version of Jackson that futilely tried to do more than he was physically able to drew ire from fans and media. His usage dropped only marginally from the season before, but his efficiency fell off a cliff.
Among all high-usage regulars in the NBA last season (playing 25 minutes or more, appearing in 50 games or more and with a usage over 25 percent), Jackson had the second-worst effective field goal percentage, the second-worst true shooting percentage, the worst offensive rating and the fifth-worst defensive rating across the league.
This past offseason, he was put on a 16-week rehabilitation regimen focused entirely on building strength in the ligaments in his knee, thus reducing the strain on the joint. This rehab program eschewed any on-court basketball work, meaning he went over six months without playing basketball of any kind between the point when he was mercifully shut down last season in late March and the beginning of training camp.
It seems like this rehab program paid off for Jackson and the Pistons organization. Perhaps the biggest reason for the Pistons’ resurgence this season has stemmed directly from Reggie Jackson’s health. This is a common talking point, but it’s important to know just how his health has impacted his play, and how his play has improved this season.
On the offensive side, perhaps nowhere was Jackson’s physical state more obvious last season than in transition. In the element of the game that most emphasizes quickness and athleticism to take advantage of back-pedaling defenses trying to recover, Jackson didn’t have the burst he was accustomed to and defenders could react and close him off easily.
As a result, he was remarkably inefficient in transition. He scored just .769 points per possession in transition, placing him in the seventh percentile. 23.5 percent of his possessions resulted in turnovers, often a result of being trapped mid-drive. Only 12.2 percent of his possessions were in transition, well below the league average around 15 percent.
The first place to look when we assess Jackson’s performance this season versus last season is transition. 14.4 percent of his possessions come in transition, a much more reasonable rate. He’s scoring 1 point per possession and is only turning the ball over 17.7 percent of the time.
Last season, Jackson and Andre Drummond ran a heavy number of pick and rolls. Surprisingly, Jackson was slightly more efficient as the pick and roll ball handler last season than he was in 2015-16, scoring .889 point per possession, but his inability to blow by defenders made it easier for defenses to key on him without help. As a result, the Pistons scored just .942 points per possession off his passes from the pick and roll. That mark was in the 23rd percentile.
This season, Jackson is a new man in the pick and roll. Jackson is scoring 1.02 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler, which places him in the 88th percentile. Not only is Jackson setting a career mark at his highest-volume play (47.8 percent of his possessions come in the pick and roll this season), he’s been one of the best in the league this season.
Jackson has run the eighth-most pick and rolls, and only Kemba Walker is more efficient among players who have higher volume. Even more remarkably, among the top 52 players in volume, only Walker, Stephen Curry and LeBron James are more efficient as the pick and roll ball handler than Reggie Jackson has been so far this season.
In addition, Piston shooters are scoring 1.133 points per possession off Jackson’s passes out of the pick and roll. Much of that should be credited to being surrounded with better shooters on the perimeter, but Jackson’s ability to get penetration requires more defensive attention and leaves more open shooters.
Reggie Jackson’s own shooting has been markedly better this season as well, in spite of the fact that shooting was just about the only thing he was able to do effectively last season, albeit just for short stretches. Last season, Jackson shot 41.9 percent from the floor and 35.9 percent from three-point range. Thanks largely to an inability to get to the free throw line (he had a free throw rate of just .201), his true shooting percentage was a woeful 51 percent.
This season, he’s shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, 38.9 percent from three-point range and has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent. His free throw rate has also climbed to .264. In the last 11 games Jackson has shot 52.9 percent from the floor, 43.9 percent from three and has a true shooting percentage of 61.5 percent.
Jackson has been able to thrive in part due to not having to be the focal point of the offense every time he’s on the floor. With Andre Drummond’s breakout as a point center who can run offense through dribble handoffs and finding cutters off ball from the elbow, Jackson has been able to play off ball more than ever in a Piston uniform.
Last season, he took 1.71 catch and shoot jump shots per 36 minutes, scoring just .986 points per possession. 11.4 percent of his possessions were catch and shoot jumpers. This season he’s taking 2.13 catch and shoot jump shots per 36 minutes, scoring 1.143 points per possession. 15.6 percent of his possessions have been of the catch and shoot variety.
Jackson’s usage ramps up to 36.9 percent in the fourth quarter, by far his highest usage of any quarter. This is entirely by design in order to control clock through the pick and roll and to reduce the number of passes and potential turnovers in late game situations when you need a shot or a foul every time.
The Pistons run a lot of dribble hand-offs throughout the first three quarters of most games, but those feature a lot of random and opportunistic cuts off ball. When you need to burn clock on every possession in a close game, especially later in the fourth, the pick and roll is the go-to play and Jackson becomes the quarterback and running back.
Jackson is one of the few playmakers on the Piston roster who can go get a basket from a variety of places on the floor. Tobias Harris has been an explosive scorer this season, but he’s not a playmaker and the offense would surely bog down if run through him. As for Avery Bradley, well, he’s a turnover machine.
Reggie Jackson is not without his flaws, but he fits the role he’s meant to fill on his team. His fellow Pistons have noticed his strong play this season as well. “He’s been great, really playing some great ball. He’s confident in his game and focused on every night helping his teammates win,” said Tobias Harris when we spoke about the topic.
For Detroit sports fans, there’s always a scapegoat. For fans of the Red Wings, it’s the goalie. For fans of the Lions, the quarterback. For Pistons fans, Reggie Jackson has been largely scorned, thanks mainly to a lack of understanding and knowledge regarding the gravity of the injury he was playing through last season.
With his newfound health, Jackson is playing the best basketball of his career for a Detroit Piston squad in the mix for a solid playoff seed.