This is the third installment of the You Can Do Better series, in which I'll take a look at the Spurs' players and give an opinion on what part of their game I'd love to see them improve. It doesn't mean these players don't already have a valuable skill set or that they absolutely need get better. The idea is to come up with realistic ways in which every one of the Spurs' players can evolve and help the team. Here are the installments about Tony Parker and Danny Green.
This time we'll take a look at Stephen Jackson.
Now, looking at statistical information on Jackson is tough because there are a lot of factors to consider in the last couple of seasons: his clash with Scott Skiles, which resulted in an inconsistent role in Milwaukee, the change in roles from primary scorer-creator on the Bobcats to role player with the Spurs, and the different mindset with which he approaches playing for a contender - all which seem to affect what Jackson actually produces.
Since the statistical data is scarce and frankly not at all encouraging, except for his amazing 3-point shooting percentage in the playoffs, I'll instead focus on what I believe will help Jackson enter a new stage in his career: becoming a better role player. If Leonard doesn't regress, he will be the starter at SF and unlike the situation with Green and Manu Ginobili, Jack will be a "real" reserve, probably getting the 20 minutes a game he got last season. Fortunately, Jackson the role player is, at this point, a much more effective player than Jackson the would-be star. Last season he seemed happy to be with a winning team and embraced his role; hopefully, that transfers to this next season.
What can he improve on?
While some would love to see Jackson take a more active role on offense, the results for teams relying on Jackson as a second or third option are not encouraging. He tends to turn the ball over a lot and shoot low percentages and the bigger his role on offense, the less energy he can devote to defense. That doesn't mean Jackson holds no value to the Spurs. If Jackson embraces a supporting role, and everything suggests he might, he will likely be an important rotation players and the type of X factor in the playoffs the Spurs have lacked since Robert Horry retired. With that in mind, these are the three areas I think Jackson can improve upon to become the role player the Spurs need him to be:
Jackson had an assist to turnover ratio of 1.11. No other G/F on the team was that bad, and when we consider turnovers alone, Jackson ranked only behind Parker (7.7 assists) and Ginobili (4.4 assists). Simply put, Jackson is turning the ball over at a rate similar to the Spurs primary playmakers, while not contributing many assists. Now, as I mentioned, that has been the case since after his Golden State years. He was trusted to be a huge part of the offense in Charlotte and Milwaukee, which makes his turnover rate not ideal but somewhat forgivable; in his reduced role with the Spurs, that's unacceptable. Jackson can, and should, create for others on occasion, but on most plays he should be a tertiary playmaker, at best. Making the easy pass on pick and rolls and the extra pass after the defense is scrambling should result in around the same amount of assists for Jackson in an offense as potent as the Spurs’. Once Jack adjusts to having capable offensive players as teammates and doesn't force things, his turnovers should drop while his assists hold, making him a perfect complementary playmaker.
It would be interesting to see if Jackson keeps the same shot distribution from last season, as it was perhaps the best of his career. He took most shots at the rim and from 3 and, while he was well below average on both spots in the regular season, he thrived from behind the arc in the playoffs. Keeping those contested mid-range attempts down will be a key in Jackson's transition from heavy usage wing to role player, and early signs show he's being smart about it. If he takes better, assisted looks within the flow of the offense, his below average accuracy from 3 (below 34% for his career) should improve as well, making him a great, versatile weapon off the bench. Both this past season and the one before that, Jackson took considerably less 3s from the corner that he did from the wing and top of the key. During that time he handled the ball a fair amount, so it's easy to see why the corner opportunities just weren't there. With the Spurs, however, there will be a lot of open corner 3s and Jack would be wise to pull the trigger. The fact that he can hit a contested 3 from anywhere on the floor when it counts was a huge, huge asset in the playoffs, but in the marathon that is the regular season smart, open shots are what the offense should look for. The transition into spot-up shooter is all about patience and shot selection and I believe Jackson will be up for the challenge.
Jackson is a good defender. Not lock-down, but certainly above average and versatile. His new role will afford him ample opportunities to make a mark on the defensive side as well as on offense. Since he'll likely be on the court considerably less than he has most of his career, he can get away with playing very aggressive defense as foul trouble won't be as big a concern. That being said, Jackson will need to be able to read what exactly the Spurs are missing and be ready to provide it. If that's simple containment of a ball handler without fouling, fine. If aggressive help defense on penetrations is needed, he can do that. If a short period of high intensity defensive work on an elite scorer is what the team asks of him, he can focus on that. By reading the opponent's offense and reacting accordingly, Jackson could become the defensive equivalent of Ginobili as a game-changing sub.
Jackson contributes in a lot of aspects. His defense, playmaking, leadership and shooting are all welcome additions to the Spurs' roster after a plethora of one-dimensional shooters donned the Silver and Black. The key for Jackson to be an important cog in the machine this upcoming season would be for him to develop the traits of a clear-cut role player, without losing his edge and versatility in the process. There will be time for heroics in the playoffs; during the regular season, brains and patience will be Jackson's best friends.