Reputed ballhog Brandon Jennings takes leadership role

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News
Andre Drummond on Brandon Jennings: "He should be an All-Star."

Before every game, Pistons veteran Caron Butler pulls point guard Brandon Jennings aside and says: "You have star talent and star capability. Lead us."

Brandon Jennings a leader?

Until recently, the thought would have been considered ludicrous for a player many considered a selfish ballhog. But, during the Pistons' recent surge, Jennings has in fact been a leader.

In the last 10 games, Jennings is averaging 20.3 points, on 47 percent shooting, and 7.0 assists in 27.9 minutes a game.

But it is more than just the statistics.

Two weeks ago during a victory over Orlando, it was Jennings leading the cheers from the bench as teammates kept hitting long 3-point shots.

After his game-winning shot touched off a wild celebration in San Antonio, it was Jennings deflecting credit from himself, instead praising his backup, D.J. Augustin, for carrying the team during much of the fourth quarter.

In the latest comeback victory, Monday at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, it was Jennings, the supposed chucker without an inclination to defend, who secured the 114-111 win by stealing the ball from Kyle Lowry, afterward slamming the ball in exultation.

After the win over the defending champion Spurs, Jennings said, "I've never been on a six-game winning streak in my career. We have to take it one game at a time. I've never seen it like this. We're still humbled, though."

Humility juxtaposed with Jennings jokingly proclaiming himself as "Ike Turner Jr." with his 1970's retro-style afro and wardrobe? With every team-first quote and every whisper to coach Stan Van Gundy about leaving Augustin in when he is playing well, Jennings is chipping away at the image of a me-first chucker and turning himself into a maturing leader directing the Pistons out of the abyss and to respectability.

"You guys have it all wrong. Brandon has always wanted to do the right things on the floor," a teammate said of Jennings over the summer. "He may do things with a little sizzle but he wants to win."

While Jennings admits he understood the expectations that accompanied him to Detroit last season — and criticism that came with last year's disappointing results after he and Josh Smith arrived — he doesn't want to be lumped in with anybody, and little by little, he's introducing himself to a city he fits way more than anybody believes.

"I think just the fact that myself and Josh were the two biggest signings, the hype and expectations were on both of us," Jennings said. "But Josh plays a certain way and I play a certain way, so I think that was the most unfair part of it.

"He has a certain way they want him to play and I have a certain way I'm supposed to play. We came over here together but we're two different players."

When Smith was released on Dec. 22, most believed Jennings was next on the chopping block, that he wasn't Van Gundy's type of player. And whether he is or isn't, only Van Gundy's actions will determine, but Jennings is clearly the most dynamic point guard Van Gundy has coached — and assuredly, Van Gundy's biggest surprise through this surprising streak.

"Sometimes you're going, 'Umm,' with some of his shots, but I'm not trying to put a leash on him," said Van Gundy, who contorted his face when describing some of Jennings' shots.

"Because he's playing great and you gotta let those guys go. He's playing as well as I've seen him play since he came into the league."

Many expected Van Gundy to take on Smith as his pet project and unlock Smith's potential into efficiency, while Jennings was essentially treated as an afterthought — a "most likely" candidate to be traded. But Jennings has become the efficient star recently, carrying the Pistons on his skinny, 175-pound frame.

"He should be an All-Star," Pistons center Andre Drummond said.

Alternative road

Leading hasn't come easy for a kid who was always a little different, from the alternative road he took after high school, when he decided not to attend Arizona and went overseas for a year before he could be eligible for the NBA draft.

Brandon Jennings is averaging 20.3 points and 7.0 assists over the last 10 games for the Pistons.

"I think that has a big part of their perception for what they know about me because I went against the grain and did what I wanted to do and not anybody else," Jennings said.

It's not hard for the public to consider an 18-year-old selfish for wanting to buck the tried-and-true system of going to college, but the fact many haven't followed in Jennings' footsteps has illustrated he's willing to blaze his own path.

"If I had to do it again, I'd do it again. The things I've learned, you can't see it in one year in college," Jennings said. "I got to eat at the most famous places in the world, eat at the most famous restaurants. I got to live in Rome, Italy. I mean, who wouldn't want to do that at 18?"

Jennings has rated his time in Italy as positive, even if the basketball aspect wasn't as successful as many wanted it to be. The criticism didn't leave him hardened, but considering he's naturally more observant than trusting, he went further into his shell.

"People don't know that I'm into basketball," Jennings said. "I think people think I just play the game to just play. I watch a lot of basketball, a lot of old basketball. I really embrace the players who came before us."

That's why it's no surprise he revers former coaches, especially Scott Skiles, from his days in Milwaukee, and former Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. He and Cheeks formed a close bond last season before Cheeks was fired after 50 games.

Cheeks became somewhat of a father figure to Jennings, whose father committed suicide when Jennings was young. Aside from taking on his father's neatness, Jennings doesn't remember much — which made Cheeks' firing more devastating.

"It affected me a lot because I feel like I was making that turning point in my career," said Jennings, who went into a funk the second half of last season without Cheeks. "It was more than just basketball, it was life in general."

He and Cheeks text frequently. "He asked me yesterday for some Under Armour gear," Jennings joked.

He also stays in contact with former Piston assistants Henry Bibby and Rasheed Wallace.

"I'm sure you'll have people who'll probably be like, why are you hanging around Rasheed Wallace?" Jennings said. "But he's also won in this league and if you pick his brain about basketball, he knows what he's talking about."

On Christmas morning, Jennings sat in front of his TV, watching the ESPN documentary on the Bad Boys, the Pistons team that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 but endured a long, difficult road to get there.

"Just to relive it, and see how it is when you win in Detroit," Jennings said. "I couldn't take my eyes off it."

'Old man'

Walk into the Pistons locker room before a game, and you may see Jennings holding court with his teammates, often taking playful shots at 21-year-olds Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Spencer Dinwiddie, quizzing them about their NBA knowledge, things that happened 15 or 20 years ago.

"Yes, I'm an old soul. I've been an 'old man' forever," Jennings said. "Especially with my taste in music. R&B, real soul music. If you hang around me, you'll see it."

The 25-year-old who counts rap star Drake as one of his close friends often will be seen watching "The Jackson Five" miniseries, or "The Temptations" movie or "The Five Heartbeats," a movie released in the 1990's about a fictional soul group in the 1970's.

Or he'll strike up a random conversation about a recent trade in the NBA, or ask who's the best quarterback in the NFL (For the record, he's an Aaron Rodgers fan from their days in Wisconsin).

"Stan made the point to me, that he wants me to talk more, to be more vocal with the team," Jennings said. "That wasn't my thing coming in. I used to lead by example, by working hard. I try to have conversations with guys, even if it's just joking around, or telling guys what to do on the floor, it makes a bigger difference and guys are responding."

Jennings now takes teammates out to dinner on the road — and to what he calls "doing what's only right" — he picks up the tab as the team's highest-paid player.

He credits his girlfriend, actress La'Shontae Heckard, with his maturity off the court and on, as Heckard is 10 years Jennings' senior and lives with Jennings in Metro Detroit — the first time, Jennings said, he's ever lived with a woman.

"That's different, for sure. It makes you grow up and think of someone other than yourself," Jennings said. "I've had relationships before but I've had to open up and trust more."

That has translated to the floor, where a talk with Van Gundy about playing time led to him inserting Jennings back in the game before halftime — which has led to his devastating and often game-saving third quarters, like Monday in Toronto, where he brought the Pistons back with a 14-point output before they closed it out late.

"I am aware. I'm more vocal and I'm more about putting the team first. It's a part of growing up," Jennings said. "You see things like what happened to Josh, it's a wake-up call for a lot of players. If they waive him, they'll waive the next person. It's a wake-up call for all of us in the locker room. We got a job to do. Being 5-23 wasn't pleasant and Stan made that known."

vgoodwill@detroitnews.com

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