The Detroit Pistons, clearly in win-now mode, traded the younger Brandon Knight and passed on even-younger Trey Burke in the draft to make Brandon Jennings their starting point guard.
Jennings, in his fifth NBA season – and sixth pro season, as the Pistons repeatedly noted when they acquired him – should be more polished than Detroit’s potential alternatives.
But Jennings has looked extremely rough around the edges this season.
He’s making just 39 percent of his 2-pointers and 33 percent of his 3-pointers, and his turnovers per game and per minute are both career highs. What gives?
Jennings, via Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:
“I think I’m just thinking too much, trying to find guys instead of looking for my shot,” Jennings said. “So when I do, I’m out of rhythm because I’m not looking for it.”
“It’s been a little difficult, but it’s definitely going to take some time,” Jennings said. “I’m still gonna keep doing what I’m doing. This is a learning year for me, trying to be able to run a team. In Milwaukee I was just playing basketball and shooting at will. This year, I’m taking a step back.”
Maurice Cheeks is trying to turn Jennings into a pass-first point guard, but the results have been mixed.
Jennings is averaging a career-high 8.3 assists per game, and though increased passing has caused his turnover spike, his assist-to-turnover ratio is also a career best. The Pistons score 102.8 points per 100 possessions with him and 98.5 points per 100 possessions without him.
That’s all certainly encouraging.
Jennings’ shooting, on the other hand, has not.
His 39 percent on 2s and 33 percent on 3s are below his career averages, but neither are career lows. They’re both within his expected range.
What makes those efficiencies troubling is Jennings is shooting less frequently than ever. If he’s going to be more selective with his attempts, he should make a higher percentage of them – at least in theory. He clearly hasn’t gotten comfortable with that tradeoff in real time.
But Cheeks doesn’t see that as a legitimate excuse. Cheeks, via Goodwill:
“He just didn’t shoot the ball well. It’s not about thinking,” Cheeks said. “Part of the game is thinking. It’s a happy medium where you run offense or take shots. It’s not something new. You have shots, you take them. You make them or miss them.”
Cheeks made it clear he doesn’t subscribe to the theory of overthinking, but he wants Jennings to toe the line from aggression to recklessness.
“He’s got to be aggressive in the game,” Cheeks said. “You cannot be afraid to make a mistake. You’re gonna make mistakes. Play to his ability and his ability is good enough for him and good enough for us.”
The Pistons were spoiled with one of the greatest mid-career improvements by a point guard in NBA history when Chauncey Billups went from spot starter with the Timberwolves to NBA Finals MVP with Detroit under the tutelage of Larry Brown.
Jennings and Cheeks almost certainly won’t duplicate that. Jennings isn’t Billups, and Cheeks, though a former All-Star point guard, isn’t Brown.
But how close Jennings and Cheeks come and how quickly they get there will have a large impact on the second half of the Pistons’ season. The challenge is steep, though. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:
Jennings has said he was never a guy who studied videotape before this season and now he and Cheeks spend many hours every week reviewing games.
At some point, those lessons might change how Jennings sees the floor. If it all works, Jennings will be a better player than he ever could have been as a shoot-first gunner. If the Pistons get that more complete player, they’ll be better off for it.
But in the meantime, they’re hurting themselves in the present as Jennings changes his style on the fly. At 17-24 and just outside playoff position, Detroit might not maintain that patience with Jennings’ development.