Pistons' Brandon Jennings moves into spotlight
Denver — As if anyone didn't know Brandon Jennings doesn't lack bravado and confidence, Caron Butler called out Jennings' name from 35 feet away to prove a point he was making.
"Watch this," Butler motioned over to Jennings, who was shooting 3-pointers after shootaround, with assistant coach Tim Hardaway rebounding.
"Brandon! Your jumper is broke as (bleep)!" Butler yelled out playfully.
"What's broke?" Jennings asked before hitting two 3-pointers in succession and shooting Butler a "now what" look.
A grizzled veteran at age 34, Butler has said repeatedly Jennings is better than he thought.
"He has that edge from a little guy perspective," Butler said. "He has all the intangibles. Now it's just having the resume of winning. I think he's gonna tap into that this season."
And now leaguewide attention is turning in Jennings' direction, in his second season as the Pistons' point guard, the second of a three-year contract he signed last summer.
It began on the popular NBA TV program "Open Court," where former players talk about various topics and players, old and new. When the subject of this year's Pistons team came up, former NBA great and TNT analyst Reggie Miller said Jennings, not Josh Smith, would be the key to whether this team makes a legit run to the playoffs.
"He's the one who'll have to facilitate to Josh, (Greg) Monroe and (Andre) Drummond," Miller said on a conference call last week. "He can't be a shooting point guard on that team. He's gonna have to be a real point guard. He's gonna have to get these guys involved. Josh can't get those other bigs involved. It's a point guard's job."
Whether it's because some view Smith as being a player who can't change or the fact it's a point-guard-heavy league, Jennings' value has become magnified recently.
As Miller said, Jennings will have to negotiate the three bigs and learn to say "no."
"No, it's not hard," Jennings said. "If you don't have it going, we don't have it going."
Although he called it the worst year of his career, he averaged a career-high 7.6 assists, and before Maurice Cheeks was fired, he averaged 17.6 points and 8.1 assists. He was one of only five players to score at least 17 and eight (Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, John Wall and Ty Lawson are the others).
He went into a mysterious funk for the rest of the season, averaging just 12 points and 6.8 assists after the All-Star break.
"Jennings is important. He might be the most important Piston. Point guard is an extension of the coach," former Piston and current TNT analyst Grant Hill said. "I'm not totally against him being a scoring PG. It's his decision making and shot he takes. He takes a lot of off-balance shots, shots you can settle for at any point."
Both Hill, Miller and fellow TNT analyst Greg Anthony said they have the Pistons responding to new coach Stan Van Gundy and qualifying for the postseason. The question they all agree on is: Will the team play with the intelligence and maturity necessary to shoot past the likes of Atlanta, New York and Brooklyn?
Another question remains: Does Jennings have to be fully reined in, or given enough structure so he can excel with talented teammates?
Van Gundy gives him three plays to call and Jennings can choose which one he likes. After made baskets, it's Van Gundy's call. In deadball situations, the two converse and come up with a strategy.
"I'm starting to get it," Jennings said. "Who has the hot spots, who's been scoring, when I see guys down and when to pick up the energy of the team. They're gonna feed off my energy, on the floor and off."
As for which style he prefers, Jennings makes no bones about it but, to be fair, most talented point guards love playing in a freestyle system. Entering his sixth season, the answer had better start revealing itself.
"But that's a part of learning," he said. "When you start to realize how important possessions are, and getting the best possible shot every time down. It's another way of getting better."