Auburn Hills — Maurice Cheeks had a point to make. And it’s one he felt was important enough he wanted to make it before his first official practice today as the Pistons coach.
So just before the team’s media day Monday he stopped Brandon Jennings and pulled the team’s new point guard aside for a brief one-on-one chat.
“He said he’s gonna be on me every day and he’s gonna put a lot of pressure on me,” said Jennings, acquired from Milwaukee in a sign-and-trade deal in late July. “Everything was just straightforward. He said the team goes as far as I go.”
That’s a point guard talking there. Because that’s what Cheeks was a generation ago. And he knows as well as anyone that’s what Jennings needs to be — or at least what he needs to try harder to be — if this curious collection of talent Joe Dumars has assembled is going to amount to much more than that.
The mandate from ownership is to make the playoffs, and so the mandate now from Cheeks to Jennings is simple: Turn down the volume on the shot selection and turn up the intensity on the defensive end if you want this to turn out the way everyone hopes it will.
“He has to be able to run this basketball team,” said Cheeks, who spent plenty of time at his last stop in Oklahoma City mentoring another volatile, young guard in Russell Westbrook. “I just told (Jennings) I’m gonna let him know what that position is about, and the effect that it has on our team. I think he can have a major impact on our team depending how he plays the game.”
How he played the game in Milwaukee isn’t how he’ll play it here in Detroit, Jennings promises. A month ago, he vowed, “You’re going to see a whole different player.” Monday, he sounded eager to prove it, even as Cheeks started setting the ground rules, preaching an even-keeled approach from his presumptive floor leader.
“It was actually a very good meeting,” Jennings said. “To hear the things he said to me, especially from a guy who played at a high level and won, it boosted my confidence level. I can’t wait to begin.”
Still a youngster
For starters, we should probably keep in mind that Jennings is still a young player, as Cheeks was quick to note Monday. He just turned 24 last week. (A celebration that included an “altercation” with rapper “The Game,” though Jennings said Monday, “At the end of the day, as you see, I’m fine.”)
Jennings does have five years of pro experience under his belt, skipping college and playing in Europe for a year before the Bucks made him a lottery pick in 2009. And while his talent probably hasn’t matched the hype early in his career, just as his free-agent contract (three years, $24 million in Detroit) probably didn’t meet his own expectations, Jennings has improved as a point guard in some areas, particularly with his pick-and-roll game.
That’s something Brandon Knight — the key player the Pistons gave up in the trade — never seemed comfortable with in his first two seasons in the league. And it’s something the Pistons focused on as they mulled a deal for Jennings, who joked at his introductory news conference this summer about wanting to “bring ‘Lob City’ to Detroit this year.”
With a front court that includes budding star Andre Drummond and newly-acquired Josh Smith, that’s certainly part of the plan.
“I mean, I knew that before he even said it,” Drummond laughed Monday. “I wasn’t worried about that.”
Handling the half-court
In theory, this team should generate plenty of offense with its defense and in transition, blocking shots and forcing turnovers. As Drummond said, “You see our starting lineup, it’s nothing but athletes. So we’re gonna run a lot of guys out of the gym, is what it looks like.”
But what will the half-court offense look like? That’s the question Cheeks knows he needs to answer sooner rather than later. And it’s one he’ll turn to Jennings to answer first on the court, asking him to better manage the clock and the game and his own scattershot impulses.
“He’s still young, so he’s got a lot to learn and I’m just going to try and help him the best I can,” Cheeks said. “I played the position for a long time, so I’m just trying to give him some of that knowledge that I had.
“But the main thing I told him is point guards are measured by winning games. It doesn’t matter if you’re scoring 20-25 points. If your team’s not winning, that’s a direct result of your point guard.”
With all these new faces, and all these concerns about spacing, particularly with that frontcourt trio of Drummond, Smith and Greg Monroe, it might be asking too much. But Jennings, the new Palace guard, insists he’s ready for the challenge.
“Of course,” Jennings said. “This is the reason I play basketball. If you don’t like pressure, you shouldn’t be in the NBA.”