The goggles are back this season for Reggie Jackson.
More importantly, so is a newfound outlook on his career, a renewed self-belief the Clippers’ point guard began to feel last season well before a poked eye necessitated the use of his now-signature protective eyewear.
One year after Jackson questioned how much passion remained for the game following an unfulfilling, embarrassing postseason exit, and 10 months after he entered the team’s following training camp unable to envision what awaited him as one of the roster’s last offseason signings, the 31-year-old point guard began his 11th season Tuesday in a far different place, and not only because practice was held at San Diego State.
Jackson now has stability from a contract worth $22 million guaranteed, a role of elevated importance within coach Tyronn Lue’s projected starting lineup and deep appreciation for his career turnaround after his postseason performances turned him into something of a folk hero among Clippers fans.
“I’m sure you all got to see last year I had some newfound energy,” Jackson said. “I’m excited to get back and just continue to try to leave it out there on the floor.”
What Jackson has not left behind are his goggles. They weren’t solely responsible for his career revival yet became the ideal emblem for his changed outlook on the NBA — and the way the league sees Jackson.
He began using them after another player’s finger scratched his eye during a game against Phoenix in April, and even then only warily, with frustrations over their fit and tendency to fog up. Yet after he scored 26 points and tied his career high with six three-pointers in his first game wearing the glasses, Jackson’s teammates were convinced of their fit.
“They were like, ‘That’s probably your cape,’” he said.
For a player who had 20/10 vision as a child, the protective glasses don’t carry any prescription. But they might as well have been rose-colored. Wearing them provided Jackson so much peace of mind from being hit by defenders that he never took them off and appeared more comfortable than at any point since 2016, when he was healthy and helped lead Detroit to the postseason.
Jackson made 45.8% of his three-pointers, produced a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 13.6 points during the Clippers’ final 17 games of the regular season. In 19 playoff games, Jackson averaged 17.8 points, making 41% of his three-pointers and dishing out twice as many assists as he committed turnovers.
It reached the point that fans began showing up to games wearing cut-outs of glasses on their head. One added lasers to a picture of Jackson’s eyes and the meme spread online. At one point, Jackson’s brother filled him in as to why some fans had nicknamed him “Big Government” — explaining it related to his knack, late in the shot clock, of bailing out the Clippers with baskets.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s actually really cool,’” he said.
Jackson had played so well, and felt so embraced by the organization and fans after a career-reviving season, that he removed the glasses after a season-ending loss in the conference finals and wept after realizing fans had been chanting his name as he left the court.
“It felt good to build my name here,” Jackson said. “I was very appreciative that people realized I gave it my all. That’s all I normally want to do. I want to see where I stand amongst my peers playing this game, find out how good I can be but really I just want people to respect that I’m giving my all. It’s not [about] the result. I mean I’m going to have bad nights, I’m going to have good nights and I was just appreciative that they recognized that I left it all on the floor.”
Jackson felt so comfortable with the Clippers alongside Paul George, one of his closest friends, that he didn’t consider leaving in free agency, joking that even if the Clippers had not wanted him back, he would have planted himself with his bags outside of the team’s practice facility in hopes of changing their mind.
Jackson’s return means that much of the core from last season’s team is back. But their roles are different. With Kawhi Leonard expected to miss a significant amount of time this season while recovering from a partially torn ACL in his right knee, the Clippers’ playoff hopes hinge on last season’s role players becoming larger, and more consistent, presences offensively and defensively.
That challenge is most easily seen in the backcourt, where Jackson and Eric Bledsoe, the former Clipper acquired in August particularly for his ability to get to the rim, are learning how they will mesh as ballhandlers who must also keep the ball in George’s hands, too.
“We need him to do what he does, honestly, we need a guy who can really get downhill for us and attack guys,” Jackson said of Bledsoe.
The Clippers took 22.7 shots in the restricted area per game last season to rank 28th in a 30-team league. They also played at the third-slowest pace.
“We gotta be better with that,” Lue said. “I think Bledsoe will add to that. You know, being able to push the basketball, attack early, getting out in transition. So we want to work on that, we want to work on spacing, and kind of go from there.”
If, for Jackson, it goes anything close to the way he finished last season, it could be a spectacle.