Jonas Jerebko in the NBA: Baptism by Fire

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Jonas Jerebko in the NBA: Baptism by Fire
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Sit back, son, and let me tell you about a basketball time that once existed.

They once roamed the courts of the NBA—big, lumbering, slow moving beasts. A shooting range of six feet, tops. Unless you wanted to play four-on-five, you’d spend half of the 24-second clock waiting for them to take their place on the block.

Their space was the black hole of the game—if you tossed the ball into it, there it would disappear, until it reappeared in the form of a slam dunk or a “bunny.”

They came from schools like UCLA and Centenary and Georgetown and St. Bonaventure. They were all 6′11″ and weighed 240 pounds and wore size 20 sneakers. None of them could shoot free throws.

These were the “big men” of the NBA. They became an endangered species sometime in the mid-1980s and now they’re just about extinct.

One of the greatest of these behemoths, Wilt Chamberlain, was thought of so little by his coach when it came to Wilt’s lack of mobility that Butch van Breda Kolff said, “If the basketball court was made of grass, Wilt would wear out a one-square foot patch.”

They stopped breeding those type of bigs, or at the very least, the NBA stopped scouting them. Whatever, they’re pretty much gone for good.

Today’s big man runs up and down the court as if he’s being chased. He can shoot from two area codes away from the hoop. He has a free throw shooting percentage of 80. And he’s international now—he comes from Germany, France, and China. You don’t scout them anymore, you import them.

The Pistons have one from Sweden. First time ever a Swede has laced up an NBA sneaker. Swen Nater and Rik Smits were Dutch. Close, but no meatball.

The Swede is Jonas Jerebko, and he wants us to know that his first name is pronounced “YO-nas,” not like the bubblegum musical group of brothers. Oh, and while you’re at it, Jerebko is properly pronounced “Yer-EB-ko.” In Sweden, they treat Js like Ys.

Ironically, Jonas has a j—as in a jump shot. He can fire away from 22-24 feet and it won’t look like he’s a mason. In fact, he tickles the net at a reasonably successful rate.

Jerebko is starting and playing 30-35 minutes per game, as a Swedish rookie, because a) the Pistons didn’t have anyone else, thanks to injuries, and b) he’s actually pretty damn good, come to find out.

Jerebko, at 6′10″, is playing small forward, which was once manned by guys who were 6′6″ and who would get the ball 20 feet away and make like a whirling dervish toward the hoop. There’s nothing whirling or dervish about Jerebko’s game but that’s OK—he defends. Yesterday’s small forward snubbed his nose at the mere mention of the word “defense.”

Jerebko defends—sometimes without much success because the guys he’s been guarding have names like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade and LeBron James—and he runs the floor well and he can pass a little bit and there’s that outside shooting game of his. He’s got some Dirk No-vitz-ki about him.

And he’s the first Swede to ever play in the NBA, which should legally change its name to the International Basketball Association, truthfully.

New Pistons coach John Kuester clearly has no second thoughts about starting Jerebko and putting him up against some of the biggest scoring forwards on the planet.

“I don’t think they had televisions sometimes in Sweden,” Coach Q cracked after last night’s humdinger of a win over the Denver Nuggets. The implication: Jerebko shouldn’t be scared of something he’s never seen before.

Well, it was another night where Yonas got torched: the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony went off for 40 points, and a lot of those were at the Swede’s expense; Jerebko played 34 minutes.

So it’s not going to be a smooth ride for the kid as he gets baptized by fire. But Jerebko is getting invaluable experience—even if that means he’ll make every highlight reel compiled by all the high-scoring small forwards in the league, as the beleaguered defender.

No one asked me but I like Jerebko—a lot. The Pistons haven’t had someone of his skill set at his size who plays with that kind of enthusiasm since Rasheed Wallace, pre-spoilage.

Jerebko is likely to sit back down and come off the bench once Tayshaun Prince gets healthy again, which may be soon. But it’s a win-win for Kuester, who’ll get his No. 1 small forward back AND an “X” factor for his bench.

This Swede might also be the first NBA STAR from that country, too.

No yoke.

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