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With Josh Smith out, Brandon Jennings needs to finally take the next step

Stan Van Gundy’s waiving of Josh Smith shows he’s looking to the future. Jennings needs to take advantage of the next four months or he may follow Smith out the door.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This summer when Stan Van Gundy quickly filled his available roster spots, a particular player profile emerged among the perimeter players. Each was a player who showed the ability to shoot 40 percent or so from beyond three point range and they all were excellent in catch-and-shoot situations.

The team's two highest paid players Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, well, they weren't so good at those things. With Stan Van Gundy moving forward from one of his inherited underachieving players, it puts the spotlight on the remaining one.

While the Milwaukee Bucks have emerged as the clear winner of the Brandon Jennings sign and trade involving Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton, the trade still made sense at the time.

After pushing so many chips to the middle of the table in signing Josh Smith, it only made sense to chase a point guard who could potentially manage such a mess. Knight was already in over his head after two rocky seasons as starting point guard, and this would only put him in a worse position.

But the jumbo sized lineup failed and while they were at it Jennings showed little indication that he's a long-term solution for the franchise at point guard. His scoring rate and efficiency continued to decline each year since his third season and his passing numbers seem to have topped out at about 8 assists per 36 minutes.

Jennings started off the season on fire, averaging 16 points on 57 percent true shooting and 6 assists per game. But after missing a couple of games with a thumb injury, he's been a completely different player. Since then his numbers have been 9 points per game on 38 percent true shooting and 7 assists per game.

Some blame the thumb injury for the drop in production while others point to Jennings' long history as a volatile player and his numbers simply returning to his career norms. But it will be the final two months of the season that will likely determine where his role falls in the future.

To this point in his career, Brandon Jennings hasn't been an above average starting point guard. His career average for wins produced per 48 minutes has been .072, while the league average is .099.

When you look at what makes a quality point guard, you typically look at three things: passing figures, scoring efficiently, and defense. And for his career so far, he's fallen short on all three.

The league average for point guards in true shooting percentage (which takes into account three point and free throw shooting) is 52.7 percent. This season Jennings is shooting 48.8 percent TS and is 49.5 percent for his career. And he's put up that number while taking a lot of shots. His 14.4 shots per 36 is second on the team despite the fact that seven players on the team have a higher TS.

His defense has also always been an issue. New SportVU data offers a look at just how significant of an issue it has been. It tracks the percentage that a player shoots when Jennings is defending his shot and compares it to the average field goal percentage of that player. And it shows opponents torch Jennings, shooting 6 percent better from the field when Jennings is covering them. For comparison's sake, opponents are only shooting .9 percent better when covered by Jennings' backup D.J. Augustin.

It's his passing though where Jennings has always shined. Unfortunately, it's tough to argue that it's enough to make up for his other weaknesses. His career average of assists per 48 minutes is 8.6 compared to 9.3 for the league average point guard. He's surpassed that time with the Pistons at least with 10.7. His assist percentage has also taken a jump up to 35 percent with the Pistons, compared to 25 percent with the Bucks. It's good, but not elite.

And it's not that hard to find players on the scrap heap who can give you that. Last season the Lakers signed Kendall Marshall after he was waived and Marshall responded with a 44 percent assist percentage. Pistons castoff Peyton Siva is currently putting up an assist percentage of 35 percent in the D-League. Rookie Spencer Dinwiddie also isn't far off Jennings' mark with a 29 percent assist percentage right out of the gates.

So the bottom line is that he's decent in one of the three key areas, but a complete liability in the other two. If he's going to stick long term, he's going to have to shore up those weaknesses - or at least make the damage less dramatic.

Upside has always been an argument for Jennings. That perhaps the lightbulb will click, that he'll turn his flashes of excellence into consistently solid play, that the coach will fix him. But eventually he'll need to be accepted as a mostly finished product. At 25 years old, just two years younger than his backup and four years older than the third stringer, and in his sixth season, this will likely be that stretch that defines what his finished product looks like.

It's tough to see which of the areas a sustained improvement could come from. It'll be difficult for Jennings to ever play the part of an efficient offensive scorer. Most folks who have that title are either dead-eye three point shooters, strong finishers at the rim, or live at the free throw line, and most can do more than one of those things. Jennings unfortunately isn't strong at any of them, and the population that thrives on shots off the bounce between 15-19 feet leaning at just the right angle...well, they're typically not known for their efficiency.

Last night against the Pacers though, he showed another flash of the type of player that he's capable of being. He was a pest defensively and played mostly smart offensively, with a few beautiful feeds to Andre Drummond.

This one from last night set Drummond up perfectly, in a way that point guards have struggled with all season.

Jennings forced the opposing big man to stay in front of him long enough for Drummond to slip past the defense and put home the alley oop. All night he did a fantastic job setting up Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and feeding Greg Monroe. If he's able to offer that balanced game with excellent distribution consistently, there'll be a place on the Pistons for him.

Still, the remaining 53 games are critical for Jennings. Next year he enters the final season of his three year deal signed by Joe Dumars. With the salary cap set to explode this offseason and Pistons front office angling for cap freedom, if Jennings fails to improve he could find himself with another change of scenery next year.

Only this time, a starting job won't be handed to him.