How Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith Must Change Their Games to Make Pistons Work

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013


That's a sound that the Detroit Pistons will need to get used to after signing Josh Smith in free agency and completing a sign-and-trade for Brandon Jennings. Both new acquisitions are certainly talented, but they also have a knack for bricking ill-advised jumpers. 

Can this change? Of course. And it'll have to if the Pistons want to live up to the suddenly increased expectations. 

Let's break down exactly how the point guard and forward must change their games in order to thrive while wearing Pistons uniforms. 


Jennings Must Fire Away with Less Frequency

The biggest offensive alteration that must happen for Jennings is a complete change in mentality. 

On the Milwaukee Bucks, the southpaw was an absolute gunner, firing away with reckless abandon even as shot after shot bounced off the back and off the rim. During the 2012-13 campaign, Jennings took 199 shots from 16 to 23 feet and another 489 from behind the three-point arc, making 38.2 and 36.6 percent of those looks, respectively. 

His shot chart, provided by Basketball-Reference, has so much red in it that your eyes may start bleeding: 

The problem is that Jennings just isn't a very good shooter. Until he recognizes that, he's going to do more bad than good. 

Jennings does have many marketable skills. He's a fairly decent finisher around the basket, and he can get there with frequency, thanks to his creative handles and nice first step. He's also an adept passer when he chooses to use that part of his game. 

Every once in a while, the floor general reminds us that he could be an elite distributor if he could turn off the shot-happy portion of his brain. Alas, he can't. 

At least not yet. 

Take a look at this action that the Bucks ran early on in the season. It's a set that results in—you guessed it—a missed Jennings jumper. 

Right off the bat, you see some movement that will be replicated quite often for the Pistons. Jennings receives the ball while curling around a screen set by a wing player, and you can already tell that Larry Sanders is ready to set yet another pick. 

Detroit should be running tons of plays that involve screens from both Smith and Andre Drummond, seeing as both are great finishers when they roll to the basket after setting a pick. The more the defense is forced to think about, the more opportunities to make a positive play. 

After receiving the rock, Jennings sets up at the top of the key, waiting for Sanders to get in position. 

As you can tell from the arrows, the point guard is going to be faking one way and then waiting for the big man to pull a 180 and screen in the opposite direction.

Brendan Haywood doesn't hedge over fast enough, so Sanders effectively takes out two people. 

Jennings is left with a ton of open mid-range space, and he takes advantage by driving right into it. 

At this point, Jennings has two options. Can you guess which one I'm not a fan of? 

Although the point guard did indeed have an open look, it's this kind of shot that he has to stop taking. The mid-range jumper is the least efficient shot in basketball, and Jennings is one of the Association's biggest culprits. 

He missed this shot, as he did quite often throughout the season, and there's no telling what would have happened if he'd decided to attack the basket. On the Pistons, we must find out. 

Playing alongside two quality bigs—at a minimum, as Smith, Drummond and Greg Monroe might all be on the court sometimes—Jennings will have plenty of opportunities to score at the rim or drop off the ball to a big man for an easy look. 

He just can't keep firing away without a second thought.


The Same Goes for Smith

It's not only Jennings who has a problem lofting up shots.

Both he and Smith are far too prone to shooting perimeter jumpers that catch nothing but iron, leading NBC Sports' Kurt Helin to feel bad for an inanimate object.

In fact, it's the same reason that I tweeted out the following weeks before anything came to pass. 

In case you didn't notice, that was a sarcastic tweet. The thought of that many missed perimeter jumpers on the Pistons squad was hilarious to me then, and it still is now, unless Smith can curtail his proclivity for ill-advised jumpers as well. 

No sight was more terrifying to Atlanta Hawks fans than Smith pulling up for a long two-pointer. It was a lose-lose situation, as he'd either miss a stupid shot or make it and gain the confidence to keep firing away. 

How many other plays in basketball draw groans from the home crowd regardless of the result? If there are any others, I can't think of them off the top of my head, but please don't hesitate to fill me in.

I showed you an example of what Jennings shouldn't be doing offensively, but now let's take a look at exactly what J-Smoove needs to do in order to maximize his chances at success.

While Jeff Teague is dribbling the ball in the corner and drawing a double team, Smith is as wide open as I usually am during pick-up games. No one is paying much attention to him during this early-season contest with the Washington Wizards

It's almost as though they're daring Teague to pass the ball to J-Smoove for an open jumper that will inevitably fail to find the bottom of the net. 

Oh wait. 

That's exactly what they're doing. 

Teague passes the ball to him, and Washington's coaching staff probably get big eyes at this point. They're excited that the plan is starting to work. 

Look how much open space J-Smoove has. Jan Vesely can't possibly keep up with a bounce pass, and no one is close enough to even think about contesting the inevitable jumper. 

However, Smith refuses to comply with the plan. 

Instead of rising up for a long two-pointer, he puts the ball on the floor and drives to the rim. Even though Washington's entire defense collapses around him, the Oak Hill Academy product is still in good shape. 

He's that good at finishing around the rim. 

And that's exactly what he does with a nice strong-handed layup. 

That was one of a staggering 309 shots that Smith made at the rim, where he shot 77.1 percent during the 2012-13 campaign. 

Now compare that to the range that extends from 16 to 23 feet. That far from the basket, the athletic forward converted his looks only 32.9 percent of the time. He was actually more successful there than he was from either 10 to 16 feet (19.4 percent) or three-point range (29.9 percent). 

Just like with Jennings, it's all about eliminating those jumpers. 


Less Defensive Gambles

This applies to both players, just in different ways. 

Jennings occasionally gives the illusion that he's a standout defensive player, but nothing is further from the truth. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he allowed 0.9 points per possession, which ranks No. 279 in the league. 

He was solid guarding point guards in non-traditional situations (post-ups and roll men), but he was a putrid point-preventer in isolation and while navigating ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets. 

It's his 1.6 steals per game that give people the wrong impression, and that's largely because he's too prone to gambling. Jennings loves leaving his man to jump a passing lane or attack a ball-handler (as you can see in the GIF), but he needs to shake that habit now that he's with the Pistons. 

It worked for him in Milwaukee because he had Larry Sanders rejecting anything that moved in the paint. More often than not, the big man would give his point guard a tabula rasa after a mistake. 

Drummond will get there eventually, but he's not ready to serve as a consistent anchor in the colored area of the court. Jennings has to stay more disciplined or else he risks overwhelming the Connecticut product and hindering his development. 

Improving his isolation defense is absolutely crucial. 

As shown by Synergy, he allowed 0.89 points per possession in those situations, ranking him 234 in the Association. Opponents scored on 43 percent of their possessions, and that doesn't include the damage they did passing out of isolation sets for open jumpers. 

Smith's gambling deals with the other type of glamor stat: blocks. 

The forward is a fantastic shot-blocker—the youngest player in NBA history to reach the 1,000-block milestone—but that's not going to be his role on the Pistons. He must focus on his perimeter defense, staying on his man and continuing to excel as an isolation stopper. 

One game that springs to mind is a contest between the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, a game in which Carmelo Anthony drained nine three-pointers. 

As you can see from those seven images up above, Smith was responsible for many, many defensive lapses. He was too prone to flying around the court and over-helping, hoping to make an off-ball impact or swat a shot into the stands. 

When he plays small forward for the Pistons, or even if he's paired with Drummond in the frontcourt while Monroe rests, he can't focus on his shot-blocking. Instead, he has to do a much better job staying disciplined. 

Smith is a fantastic isolation defender. According to Synergy, only 31 players in the league allowed fewer than his 0.65 points per possession. That said, he struggles guarding spot-up shooters, and he must improve there. 


Acquiring Smith and Jennings certainly helped upgrade the level of talent in the Detroit organization. The problem is that general manager Joe Dumars just seemed to be spending money to, well, spend money. It doesn't seem like there was much thought put into how everything fit together. 

These two new acquisitions can coexist with the incumbents, but changes are necessary. 

If they can cut the long jumpers out of their offensive arsenals and play disciplined defense, the sky is the limit. And in this case, the sky could very well involve one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. 


Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.


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