Detroit Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks, one of the best traditional point guards of his era when he piloted a Philadelphia 76ers team that won an NBA title in 1983 and played in two other NBA Finals, is dealing with anything but a traditional point guard in Brandon Jennings.
Jennings, the 24-year-old who left high school and eschewed the idea of being a one-and-done player at the collegiate level to instead spend a year playing professionally in Italy before declaring for the NBA Draft in 2009, is trying to change his game from the shoot-first, ask-questions-later style he played with in Milwaukee for four seasons.
His assists are at a career-high level … not by a little bit, but by a lot. Jennings is averaging 8.1 assists per game in his first season as a Piston after signing an offer sheet as a restricted free agent last summer and being dealt to Detroit in a sign-and-trade.
His previous career best was last year in Milwaukee, where he averaged 6.5 helpers a night. He is currently seventh in the NBA in assists per game—he’s never had a top 10 finish in his career.
His assist percentage really bears out the change. His current mark of 36.8 percent is light years higher than his career best for a full season, 29.6 percent as a rookie in 2009-10.
Cheeks admits the newfound willingness to share is a welcome sight. But where Jennings is struggling isn’t in his ability or desire to pass the basketball. Rather it’s the more subtle art to the position, an area where Cheeks excelled—knowing where the other four guys on the floor were going to be from second to second and if they weren’t where they were supposed to be, you could bet that Cheeks was going to get them in the right spot before triggering the offense.
“It takes a certain amount of time for a guy to do that if they haven’t been doing it that way their whole career,” Cheeks told the Detroit Free Press. “I don’t think it’s just an overnight thing. I think Brandon is learning a little of that.”
Jennings’ inability to control the traffic flow on the offensive end leads to what we’ve seen a lot of from the Pistons in their first 16 games—spacing problems, problems with players moving when and where they’re supposed to move and the ball tending to stagnate at times.
“It’s very important to figure out where a [teammate] should be and direct him where to go,” Cheeks said. “It’s not an overnight thing where you learn how to play with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith.”
Jennings’ struggles are borne out in his advanced metrics. His offensive rating is a career-worst 100 (points per 100 possessions) this season, down from 106 the last two seasons. He’s turning the ball over more frequently than he ever has—14.6 percent. His player efficiency rating of 16.8 is better than he managed a year ago sharing a backcourt with Monta Ellis—perceived as the right-handed version of Jennings.
And it’s really showing up when he shoots the ball. Never known as a guy who was particularly accurate, Jennings is hitting just 38 percent of his shots this year, down even from the not-so-sterling 39.4 percent he had in four years with the Bucks. And his free-throw percentage is just 75.6; he was an 81.3 percent foul shooter in Milwaukee.
Still, the progress is noticeable. Jennings has five games with 10 assists or more in the 14 he’s played this year. He had just 13 such games in 80 appearances a year ago.
So far this season, the growing pains of Brandon Jennings appear to be basically mirroring those of the 6-10 Detroit Pistons—a team expected with the additions of Jennings and Smith to contend for its first playoff appearance since 2009.