Brandon Jennings’ first season as point guard of the Detroit Pistons was bad. Some might call it awful, and low expectations heading in are the sole anchor that keep it from being recognized as an “unmitigated disaster,” though you wouldn’t be too far off base calling it that anyway.
A point guard needs vision and self-restraint. He needs to understand timing and manage heightened on-court situations with a calm, steady hand. Despite averaging 15.5 points and 7.6 assists per game, with a PER that was above league average, Jennings is the exact opposite of the two previous sentences.
But to counter the belief that he’s a lost cause, Jennings is only 24 years old and has never experienced stability as an NBA player. The first four years of his career were with perhaps the most hapless franchise in NBA history, and his debut in Detroit was doomed to fail from the start, more so because none of the roster’s major pieces fit all that well.
To the surprise of nobody, the Pistons ended up firing their head coach midway through the 2013-14 regular season—the only team in the league to do so.
Stan Van Gundy, one of the most respected figures in the league, is now Jennings’ head coach. It’s the first time in the point guard’s career where the man telling him what to do is less expendable than he is, which makes for an interesting dynamic.
Can Van Gundy get out of Jennings what other coaches could not? And even if the former Orlando Magic head coach does squeeze all the talent he can, will it be enough to turn Jennings into a net positive for his basketball team?
These questions are difficult to answer. Rafer Alston and Jameer Nelson are the two shiniest examples Van Gundy steered in the right direction during his previous tenures with Orlando and the Miami Heat. But those situations were vastly different than the one right now in Detroit.
Jennings has no fully-formed All-Star to make his life easier as a decision-maker, and even on a contract that’s already below market value among starting point guards on their second deal, Jennings is badly overpaid. Trading him isn’t impossible, but none of the other 29 teams will line up to get him, either.
Still, this doesn’t seem to bother Van Gundy too much. Here’s what Detroit’s new leader said at his introductory press conference about Jennings’ ability to fit in, courtesy of MLive.com’s David Mayo.
The questions are his decision-making ability -- not so much that he's a high-turnover guy, but it's his shooting percentage you get concerned about. One of the things I like to do with guys in terms of shooting percentage is ask them why. Why 37 percent? I want to hear the answer on that. But I know he's a very, very talented guy.
Jennings made just a third of all his catch-and-shoot jumpers—a lower percentage than teammate Josh Smith, who jacked up more than twice Jennings’ attempts per game—and was actually a few percentage points better on pull-up shots last season, which is unusual.
Only nine players in the NBA attempted more pull-up jumpers per game, which is obviously a problem that needs correcting. Going forward, Detroit’s offense needs much more balance and purpose. They have zero players on the roster who should be taking that many jumpers off the dribble.
If no major changes are made to the roster (highly unlikely), they should utilize their size in the post. If three-point shooters are added and either Smith or Greg Monroe leaves town, Jennings should function more as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll than a No. 1 scoring option.
He’s fast enough to knife his way into the defense’s stomach off a high screen, and he’ll be able to do it more often with a spaced floor. From there, he can attempt more efficient shots near the basket, find shooters on the perimeter or lob it to the huge roll man (Andre Drummond) at the rim.
Van Gundy might be on to something about Jennings having talent. Inefficient numbers aside, Detroit’s putrid offense was never worse than when Jennings wasn’t playing, which is sort of a shocker considering his thoughtless shot selection. He posted a career-best 34.4 percent assist rate last year, and tallied 609 assists (fifth most in the entire league).
Jennings is talented enough to score, but Van Gundy may find that what’s best for the team is to primarily utilize his point guard as a playmaker.
On the other end, Jennings is a complete train wreck. The best way to describe his play on defense is halfway between "disinterested" and "frozen inside an ice cube." According to ESPN’s real plus-minus statistic, Jennings’ -4.37 Defensive RPM puts him at 85th out of 87 point guards.
Here he is needlessly gambling on a pass to Brandon Knight (the player Detroit traded him for) that he has very little chance of stealing.
And here are two examples of Jennings being completely unaware of his surroundings defending Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry off the ball.
Finally, here’s Jennings “trying to stop” Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson from getting into the paint. This is effort?
Van Gundy would probably prefer trading Jennings than keeping him, but since that isn’t realistic right now, the best way to maximize his point guard’s talent would be limiting his shot attempts (particularly off the dribble) and getting him to pay attention on the other end.
Jennings’ poor shooting numbers may never get better, and that’s fine so long as he’s taking care of the basketball and making sure his teammates are comfortable. But if Van Gundy can get through to Jennings and make him feel responsible for all that unpleasantness on defense, the Pistons could have a respectable starting point guard after all.