Nelson brings savvy, familiarity to Van Gundy, Pistons

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — Jameer Nelson was as surprised as anybody. On Feb. 8, the day of the NBA trade deadline, he was making yet another move.

Veterans have a way of understanding the business side of the NBA, and Nelson is no different. A week after being traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Chicago Bulls in the deal for Nikola Mirotic, Nelson was on the move again.

He hadn’t even suited up to play for the Bulls and was heading to a squad with an already-stocked roster at point guard.

For Nelson, coming to the Pistons meant a reunion with team president/coach Stan Van Gundy, for whom he had played a decade ago in his heyday with the Orlando Magic.

Almost assuredly, there was some level of familiarity that facilitated the trade, looking to bring some veteran stability at point guard, a position that has been in flux since Reggie Jackson’s injury on Dec. 26. One can imagine the talks that Van Gundy and Nelson had to try to bring some of that same magic — this time, in a backup role — from their Orlando days to Detroit.

“We didn’t even talk about it; there was no conversation. I didn’t know when I was going to play, or if I was going to play,” Nelson told The Detroit News last week. “No matter what, I’m going to have his back because of our past history. I’m not going to complain if I play 40 minutes; I’m not going to complain if I play zero.”

It’s been a bit more than zero.

Nelson arrived to the Pistons the day after the trade, on his 36th birthday, and although he didn’t play in that first game, he’s played in the last three, as the primary backup point guard to Ish Smith. It’s been an easy fit, as Van Gundy runs mostly the same offense. The pieces are different, but the familiar focus on the pick-and-roll hasn’t changed since the Orlando days.

“I know the shooters; I know the guys who can roll and pop. Stan has been putting me in pick-and-roll to make plays out of it,” Nelson said. “He’s making it kind of simple. He hasn’t done anything complicated — some things out of timeouts, but that’s all.”


Beyond the savvy at point guard, Nelson also brings something that could help the Pistons (28-29) as they make a run toward the playoffs.

He has a familiarity with Van Gundy. It’s an understanding that could be worth well more than the price of the contract of Willie Reed, whom the Pistons sent to the Bulls for Nelson. Van Gundy is known to be a bit abrasive, adamant to get his point across vocally, which rubs some players the wrong way.

Nelson knows it all too well from their five seasons together with the Magic. He also knows how to deal with it, though.

“He’s going to get on you — that’s just who he is. He’s consistent — it’s not that he’ll be on you one day and then not the next day,” Nelson said. “He’s trying to get the most out of everybody individually, and collectively as a team. That’s the way he knows how to do it. You have to figure out a way to deal with it.”

“I try to help guys deal with that.”

Veteran presence

When he arrived in Detroit, Nelson immediately was the most veteran and oldest player on the roster, but he also brought an ability to play the position. He struggled during stretches of the first couple of games, but posted 12 points and five assists in the loss to the Pelicans.

Those are solid numbers for the circumstance, with little practice time, but supplanting Langston Galloway and Dwight Buycks as the reserve options was something of a surprise.

“I just think Jameer is more of a point guard for the time being,” Van Gundy said last week. “(Over All-Star break), I’ll have a full week to address all that.”

Whether Nelson will continue to be the backup until Jackson returns from his severely sprained ankle is unclear, but the vote of confidence from Van Gundy could be a sign of things to come.

It also could mean that he uses some of his experience to inject some needed words, echoing some of the fundamentals and key points from Van Gundy’s perspective — but in a way that his new teammates can hear it differently.

“You can’t hear the same voice all the time; it gets old and stale. That’s why as an older vet or leader, I can pull guys aside,” Nelson said. “You can see guys get frustrated at certain things, but it’s part of the game. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody said we have to like each other.

“We all have the same goals. Sometimes (Van Gundy) yells and screams; sometimes you have to listen to the message and not the tone.”

Nelson is already used to that.