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Brandon Jennings Is a Changed Man in the Detroit Pistons' Post-Josh Smith Era

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2015

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Whether they thought it would have an effect this profound or not, the Detroit Pistons' decision to waive Josh Smith has produced an endless list of beneficiaries. Atop that rolling index, though, sits Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings.

Following Smith's departure, Jennings has undergone a basketball epiphany of sorts, with his numbers inflating, efficiency soaring and confidence reaching an all-time high. Thus far, Detroit has posted an 11-2 record without Smith and sits just a single game out of the playoffs. 

Here's the skinny on Jennings' production before and after Smoove's release:

Brandon Jennings' Production Before and After Smith's Departure
PPGAPGFG%3P%
Before13.06.636.632.7
After20.76.345.243.8
Source: NBA.com

With scoring and assist averages of 20.7 and 6.3, respectively, over the past month, Jennings would qualify as one of seven players posting such numbers on a nightly basis if they spanned the entire season. Only James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have done the same, according to Basketball-Reference.com

Getting a tad more specific and examining Jennings' production in January, the figures are even more mind-boggling. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Jennings' efficiency ratings on both ends of the floor have been staggering in 10 games this month sans Smith. Namely, Jennings' offensive rating has rocketed up to 123, which represents a 29-point increase from December. Detroit's defense has also been strikingly better to start 2015, with Jennings surrendering a season-best 106 points per 100 possessions.

NBA TV explained just how prolific Stan Van Gundy's club has been since the season-defining transaction: 

NBA.com @NBAcom

.@NBATV analyzes the great play from @DetroitPistons over the past 12 games: http://t.co/fIkhLCpH9v http://t.co/69KaiPdEEj

As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck recently discussed, the absence of Smith has opened up opportunities for Detroit's offense to flow more freely.

"Without Smith, the Pistons' offensive identity has been sharpened," Beck wrote. "It's about Jennings' playmaking and perimeter play, with Monroe banging inside and Drummond attacking the rim. Without Smith, the ball moves and the offense flows."

With a read-and-react style that's quickly become the Pistons' calling card, Jennings has flourished as a go-to weapon. 

Not only is Jennings distributing at a steady rate, but he's rapidly evolved into an off-the-dribble force. Since Dec. 23 (when Smith was officially let go), Jennings shot 46.4 percent on all pull-up attempts and 43.5 percent on pull-up threes. Compared to when Smith was still in the Motor City, those figures represent 21.2 and 14.9 percent increases respectively, according to NBA.com.   

Jan 2, 2015; New York, NY, USA;  Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Jennings (7) gestures after a basket during the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Detroit Pistons won 97-81. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Spor
USA TODAY Sports

"I think some guys are more comfortable in getting more opportunities, and so they're playing better," Van Gundy said, according to Beck. "You've taken the guy who had the ball in his hands more than anybody on our team out of the equation. You've split those possessions up among other guys. Everybody's getting more opportunities, so everybody's more comfortable, more confident and in a better rhythm."

As the primary benefactor of that sudden tactical shift, Jennings' usage rate climbed to a monster 32.3 percent in January after sitting at 21.5 in December, per Basketball-Reference.com.

The spike in raw production shouldn't be entirely surprising. After all, Jennings has never been gun-shy. The staggering facet of his sudden revival is the efficiency with which he's scoring the ball. 

Prior to this year, Jennings shot better than 40 percent from the field just once over the course of five seasons. To put that in perspective, Jennings entered the 2014-15 campaign tied for No. 8 all time in terms of total seasons averaging at least 14 field-goal attempts while shooting worse than 40 percent from the field, per Basketball-Reference.

And he's just 25 years old.

The only other active player within striking distance is Jamal Crawford (three such seasons), but he's in the midst of his 15th year on the job. 

But here is Jennings' stellar shot chart since the Pistons waived Smith:

Brandon Jennings' shot chart since Dec. 23
Brandon Jennings' shot chart since Dec. 23Credit: NBA.com/Stats

Now that Jennings is finally finding comfort with that smooth lefty stroke, he is blossoming into the vocal young leader Detroit sorely needs. 

"I just felt like it wasn't really my place because Josh was the leader at the time," Jennings said, according to the Detroit Free Press' Jeff Seidel. "He was the captain, him and Caron Butler were the vets. I backed off. I didn't want to step on anybody's toes."

From a maturation perspective, these physical and mental developments are overwhelmingly encouraging.

Remember, Jennings entered the league as a raw 19-year-old in 2009 and still has plenty of room to grow in the grand scheme of things.

Although it would be easy to pigeonhole him as a streaky volume scorer given the shaky five-and-a-half season sample we've been exposed to, Jennings has proved he's capable of adapting to a more demanding role that better suits his playmaking skills. 

He may not be a front-runner to take home Most Improved Player honors, but with the freedom to operate as the focal point of an offense that's been strikingly more balanced of late, don't sleep on Jennings wedging his way into the conversation if his efficiency continues trending up. 

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