Memphis — Brandon Jennings simply says he is hooping. He is not trying to become the second coming of Isiah Thomas overnight. And that is probably the right attitude until a real leader of this team is uncovered or discovered.
Jennings is a leader but he is not the leader that this team will need if it is to become elite. Jennings is learning the delicate balance that point guards need. They must learn how to get their offense going and how to make others better.
He is still a gunner. Jennings torched Oklahoma City for 29 points Friday night as the Pistons recorded their first road victory of the season. But in his last six games he has 43 assists and just 12 turnovers. Those numbers are more important because he is taking care of the ball.
"We just need him right now to continue to play the way he is playing now," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I don't think we can hang leadership and becoming somebody's team at this time. I don't even know who that would be. Brandon is playing very well and he needs to continue to play at that level."
Jennings did not enjoy his best night during the Pistons' 95-88 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday at FedEx Forum. He finished with 14 points, four assists and shot 6-for-16 from the field.
When the Pistons won titles in 1989 and 1990 it was point guard Isiah Thomas's team. Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace took ownership of the team when they won in 2004. No one has earned ownership of this team. It is one of many run of the mill teams trying to establish an identity.
Andre Drummond is going through his issues and is just trying to establish himself. Greg Monroe does not know where he will be beyond this season and Josh Smith does not appear to be the guy to grab a team and lead it to long playoff runs.
That guy is probably not on the roster yet. But if a current player emerges in that role it would be Jennings. Actually it must be Jennings because that is the job of the lead guard.
Leading by example
Jennings says he is developing leadership qualities although he admits he is not a vocal leader.
"I am not so vocal," he said. "I like to lead by example. I like to come in and be the first one (at practice), not missing days of practice — just going through the grind of it."
Here are some of the things Jennings must master if he wants this to be his team:
• He must make teammates better. One of his pet projects must be Drummond, a guy with lots of potential who is struggling because more is being asked of him. Jennings and Drummond need alone time. Jennings must ask him where he likes the ball. Does he like it high or does he like it low? Does he feel more comfortable on the left block or the right block? Then he must do what he can to make Drummond better.
• His mentality must be more like Joe Montana than Michael Jordan. Jennings must become a quarterback. A quarterback leads the team down the field. Yes, he must take shots. But his mentality must be that of passer first, gunslinger second.
• And he cannot be afraid to make big shots for a team that does not play well late.
Solving the puzzle
We are seeing signs of Jennings getting close. He is getting better and shows signs of being a team leader. He still throws up questionable shots but not at the alarming rate he did earlier in his career. It takes time.
The two best point guards to win titles for the Pistons are Thomas and Billups. Both struggled with the conflict of playmaker and shotmaker. Even during one of the championship seasons Thomas once asked, "What is shooting too much?" because he was still receiving criticism.
Billups learned under Larry Brown and it was not easy. Billups often grew frustrated because he could not make Brown happy. He was annoyed and his frustration often spilled over to the media, where he questioned Brown and questioned himself. One day it all came together, even though he was still best known as Mr. Big Shot.
Assistant coach Tim Hardaway is teaching Jennings. Last season head coach Mo Cheeks tried before he was fired.
"He has a good balance now," Van Gundy said. "He has high assists and low turnovers and is scoring the ball. He is doing a great job of it at this point. We have put a lot on his shoulders to score and he has handled the challenge very well."
There are more challenges ahead but it appears as if Jennings is beginning to get it.
"I am just hooping," he said. "My mind is clear. I am not really thinking about too much right now."