Injured Jennings sees game from new angle with Pistons

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — Watching the Pistons through the first eight games, Brandon Jennings finds the lens is a little different than last season. After a horrific 5-23 start last season, the Pistons were in purgatory, until Jennings helped to lead them on a streak of 11 wins in 13 games.

Three games later, on Jan. 24 at Milwaukee, he was lost for the season after suffering a left Achilles injury.

After months of rehab, Jennings is working his way back to playing shape, doing some individual drills and side work. He was cleared to participate in practices and, on Thursday, worked out with the team, doing some four-on-four drills and taking contact for the first time.

"It's cool. I'm taking my time and working out every day," Jennings said Wednesday. "I'm definitely not going to push it fast — I don't care what anybody says."

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has a target date for mid- to late-December for Jennings' return, provided he has some time to participate in practices and to get back into game condition. Van Gundy reiterated that there's a medical timetable, but he's not looking to rush Jennings back; rather, he's leaving it to the medical staff.

"I've never said be cautious or push it," Van Gundy said. "Whatever they tell me he can do is what he can do. I just listen to them."

The need is evident, with the Pistons bench needing the scoring punch that Jennings can provide — 15.4 points, including 36 percent on 3-pointers last season. Having lost Jodie Meeks to a toe fracture, the reserve backcourt is thin, so any strides Jennings can take will help.

Seeing that void, though, Jennings is careful not to try to rush back, wanting to be 100 percent before he steps back into a game.

"I should be ready by (Christmas), maybe before then," he said with a grin. "I do want to get back, but I want to make sure I'm right. Once you get out there, you're out there. I want to be able to make sure I can play on back-to-back (games)."

Jennings, 26, admits that he still has some tightness in the foot, but he tries to make sure that it stays loose and warm. He has issues on flights, but he says that's normal.

He has full function and has dunked and done some one-on-one work with director of player development Quentin Richardson, who played 13 seasons in the NBA, to try to simulate some playing situations until he could get back to full strength.

"That's the good thing about it: He realizes it's a long thing and it's something he can't say is a sprained ankle and go back and play," Richardson said. "He has a good outlook on it as far as his approach.

"He's working really hard but he's trying to be smart about it and not push it too hard. He knows it's something that once he gets back, he never wants to revisit it again."

As with many serious injuries, one of the biggest hurdles is the mental aspect, not pushing too hard too soon and trying to get back to the same level before sustaining the injury. Jennings was playing some of the best basketball of his career, posting three 30-point games during the hot streak last season.

But so many things have changed since then. Van Gundy has played "Flip This Roster" and brought in several new pieces, including Reggie Jackson, who supplanted Jennings in the starting lineup — and the franchise point guard, with a five-year, $80 million deal.

The timing of the injury was costly, too, as Jennings has an expiring contract and could be a trade chip at the deadline. As other potential free agents got big contracts, Jennings just had to sit and watch.

"That hurt something bad. I'm not over it, because I'm watching everybody get paid," he said. "Who knows? If I don't get hurt and I keep playing the same way, it could have been me.

"I know I have a lot to prove and I want to come back and play at that level I was before, so I have that chip on my shoulder."

Jennings is using that as motivation for when he's able to get back on the court, to prove some of his doubters wrong and to work his way back to an elite level, even if it means finding a different role in which to help the team.

"The best thing for me is the fact that now I can come off the bench," he said. "I've been watching a lot of basketball for 10 months and studying it and looking at it from a different aspect. I appreciate the game way more than ever. I always loved it when you sit back and watch, I became a fan of it, too."

Now that the Pistons are playing like one of the better teams in the league, Jennings has been able to see a lot of the hard work pay off, and the young roster is starting to reach some of the potential he saw last year.

"I can't wait to get back," he said. "I'm going to try to come back and get sixth man of the year, but it's about winning first.

"I'm coming back with a purpose; I don't want to come back and just be healthy with being out 10 months as my excuse. I want to be back where I was."

Jennings has cleared the first few hurdles to his return, but is looking to stay on course and gradually ramp up his workouts, potentially with more today and throughout the weekend, before the Pistons return from the West Coast road trip.

"It's the only thing I want for Christmas," he said. "I can't wait — I'm hungry (to return)."