It's time to talk about Brandon Jennings.
No, not credit Jennings for a nice play. Or acknowledge Jennings for a hot streak. It's time to talk, seriously, about Jennings, because he happens to be having the best season of his career.
Throughout his NBA career, the mercurial Jennings has seen extremely high highs (scoring 55 points in his seventh NBA game) and low lows (the entire Josh Smith-era, basically, best encapsulated by this clip).
When Smith was released 15 games ago and the Pistons finally started winning (currently 12-3 since waiving Smith), some tried to credit the addition of floor spacer Jodie Meeks. Others said it finally allowed the games of big Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe to blossom. And there is the Anthony Tolliver effect to consider.
Make no mistake, the Pistons remarkable turnaround has been fueled by the incredible resurgence of one Brandon Byron Jennings. Jennings has his swag back, and his confidence has never been higher. It helps, of course, when the results have never been better.
Jennings on fire
Jennings, capped by his recent 24-point, 21-assist game against the Magic, leads the NBA in assist percentage in the past 15 games. He's putting up numbers that would be career highs since the removal of Smith, including in field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, 3-point percentage and usage rate.
Jennings' has never shot above 37.5 percent from 3 but is hitting at at a 40-percent rate in the post-Smith era. He's never hit free-throws above 82 percent but is at 83 percent PSE. Field goal percentage high is 41.8 percent but at 44 percent PSE. His usage rate topped out at 26 percent but since Smith was waived it's been at 29 percent, which ranks No. 7 among guards during that span.
Put simply, Jennings, still just 25 years old, has never had so much responsibility put on his shoulders and he's never scored as effectively or as efficiently as he has since Smith was sent packing. He's not just hitting game-winning shots or making game-sealing steals. He's doing a little bit of everything, including taking firm control of the point guard position and running the offense beautifully.
Can he keep it up?
The next question becomes is this success sustainable? While it's easy to say no, the truth is that Jennings looked like he might break out under new head coach Stan Van Gundy. Jennings season can be split into three chunks. A 13-game chunk to begin the season, a 12-game chunk after returning from a wrist injury, and the 15-game post-Smith era.
Those three segments can be described as Jennings and team try to execute Van Gundy's offense with Smith leading team in minutes and shots and losing; Jennings getting injured and totally cratering as he gets lost in an offense increasingly dominated by Smith and losing gets even worse; Smith released, offense runs through Jennings, passes galore and Pistons start winning.
Here is what Jennings' production looked like during that time frame
|Team W %
*Jennings missed three games to injury
So if we simply remove the stretch where Jennings was hobbled but the team was so bad overall, particularly at point guard, that it needed Jennings on the floor, his averages for the season look pretty sparkling under Van Gundy.
18.1 point per game with 6.5 assists, 2.0 turnovers and a shooting line of 43.9/39.9/81.9
How is he doing it?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you take the ball out of Smith's hands and into Jennings' hands, good things tend to happen. Throughout his career, Jennings has always been an adept passer. While Jennings has struggled in crunch time, now that the team has the ability to put three quality perimeter shooters and a dominating big man on the floor with Jennings late in games, his decision making is greatly improved because the decisions are much easier now.
Jennings now has space to look for opportunities to cut into the lane, find the open man on the perimeter or toss it down to a big man down low. Also, Jennings is at his best when he is playing up-tempo ball and trying to push the pace. Since the release of Smith, Detroit is flying down the floor. The Pistons were No. 20 in the NBA in pace with Smith, and they have been hovering near the bottom 10 in the NBA in pace with Smith on the floor and since his release rank No. 9.
Let's just take a look at some of the plays Jennings is making now that the team is running more, spacing the floor and he has a potent offensive big man (or two) to work with.
Here, the Pistons have two guards weakside while Jennings runs the pick and roll with Monroe. Drummond is occupying defenders in the paint and is able to seal off a possible help defender.
In this next gif, you can see what having a versatile big man can do to create some two-man offense between Jennings and Monroe.
The team is also running a lot more, and that plays into both what Jennings loves best and the style where his most effective. This is a risky pass, yes, but it shows you how good of a passer Jennings can be in transition. And puts lie to the claim that Monroe can't play in an up-tempo system. He's always been able to run the break and invariably plays hard.
This next transition hoop is even sweeter. It shows Jennings playing confidently, committed to push the ball even when the other team seems to have numbers, and correctly diagnoses the poor position the Magic big men have put themselves in. Lastly, his lob ball to Drummond, while not nearly at Will Bynum levels, is continuing to get better as the two get more comfortable with each other.
And of course, SWAG.
No, he shouldn't be making a habit of hoisting a step-back 3-pointer, but he has been hitting both step-back and catch-and-shoot looks. Don't let me stop you, Brandon. If he keeps hitting them, defenders will be much less willing to go under the screen and that gives the Pistons an even wider array of options in exploiting the defense.
All the above GIFs were culled from this terrific analyis of Jennings' game posted by BballBreakdown.
Jennings isn't an all-star, and in a year when Jimmy Butler has all but sewn up the most-improved player award, he probably won't get any official recognition for his great year so far. But in a year where I'm seeing a lot of love thrown the way of former Piston Brandon Knight for finally putting it all together, I get slightly annoyed.
Knight was, of course, traded by the Pistons for Jennings. Knight has taken a big step this year, knocking down 3s and finishing at the rim, but I'm still not sure he's a point guard. Jennings, meanwhile is having a season even better than Knight, the best season of his career, in fact, and isn't getting recognized for it.
Jennings is finally starting to live up to that promise he has shown so enticingly, if fleetingly, during his career. And he is doing it over a sustained period at a time when he is shouldering more offensive responsibility than he's ever been asked to carry.
A player who once looked to be on the first bus out of town after the release of Smith instead looks like a piece who will stick around at least until his contract ends after next season. Hopefully with a few more playoff appearances under his belt.