If Ben Wallace was the embodiment of the blue-collar grit and toughness that marked the Goin’ to Work Pistons that won the 2004 NBA title, perhaps the poster boy for the next generation of Pistons as Joe Dumars retools them to more closely resemble that team will be Jonas Jerebko.
He took the first big step toward winning the audition with a dynamic rookie season, going from the 39th pick in 2009 to a player who started 73 games, took on every defensive challenge thrown at him and played with an infectious hustle that won the hearts of Pistons fans and landed him second-team All-Rookie honors.
The NBA’s first native of Sweden took the second big step toward having Wallace hand him the baton in NBA Summer League, when he imposed his will on his teammates from the opening tip. Down 11 points in the opener midway through the game to the Los Angeles Lakers, Jerebko’s relentless drive and vocal exhortations carried the Pistons to an 89-84 win.
“His attitude was awesome,” said Pat Sullivan, John Kuester’s assistant who headed up the coaching staff in Las Vegas. “He just wouldn’t let us lose. He kept telling these guys, ‘Keep fighting, keep scrapping.’ That’s his mentality.”
Though only 23, Jerebko is ready to shoulder more of a leadership role with the Pistons even once the veterans surround him during the regular season.
“The first season as a rookie, I didn’t know the guys and now I know everybody,” he said. “I think I’ve got a little more respect than I did the first season. I’m not going to be quiet if we’re playing bad or somebody isn’t giving 100 percent. I’m going to let them know and I think everybody will respect that. I’m going to try to be a little bit louder.”
“You earn the right to speak up,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said. “And he’s that type of guy. He plays hard every single day. So you know that if he says something, his play is going to back it up in terms of the effort he gives. … The guy plays hard every day.”
The Pistons see bright, if unorthodox, offensive potential in Jerebko. At 6-foot-10 with decent shooting range – he took 115 3-pointers as a rookie and made a respectable 31 percent of them – some ballhandling ability, great feet and a natural hook shot, Jerebko has plenty of time to develop into a fine scorer. For now, they’re perfectly happy with what Jerebko supplied as a rookie – countless hustle plays, many of them never reflected in the box score. Not only did he produce a handful of extra possessions for his team in every game, his intensity energizes home crowds and lifts the energy level of his teammates.
“You know what you’re going to get from Jonas,” Pistons vice president Scott Perry said. “You know you’re going to get 100 percent effort at both ends of the floor. The guy is an excellent hustle, energy type of player and that’s who he is. We love that about him. You look at your roster, we say we’ve got a guy who is going to bring it every night, regardless of the situation. He’s a hard worker, runs the floor, makes a lot of the intangible things happen on the court. That’s what we continue to see with him.”
Jerebko suffered a slight hamstring strain in that Summer League opener, though he didn’t feel the pain until the morning after the second game. Trainer Dave Boyer saw it happen as he was posting up, and after sitting out two games, he came back to play in the finale. Over his three games, Jerebko averaged 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds. As always, it wasn’t the numbers his coaches and the front office focused on.
“Jonas is one of those players who didn’t necessarily have to show improvement in other areas to impress anybody,” Pistons personnel director George David said. “Jonas is a guy who, statistically and skill-wise, you can look down at the box score and he may not have statistically affected the game, but he definitely affected the game, whether it be getting you an extra possession or chasing down a loose ball. There was less that needed to be seen from Jonas than any other (Pistons) player in Summer League.”
Jerebko played mostly small forward in his two professional seasons in Italy, but spent last Summer League playing inside and almost all of training camp at power forward as a rookie. But when Tayshaun Prince went down three games into the regular season, John Kuester threw Jerebko into the starting lineup at small forward. When Prince returned midway through the season, Jerebko spent the second half of his rookie year at power forward.
Jerebko’s excellent footwork and his size give him the ability to check both spots. He’ll probably go to training camp with the expectation of playing more at power forward, but his versatility gives Kuester the luxury of using him to the Pistons’ advantage at either spot.
“I see him playing a lot of four for us,” Perry said, “but there are a lot of interchangeable parts and that’s a good issue.”
Jerebko will be competing over the next few weeks with the Swedish national team as it plays four games to put itself in position to compete for a spot in the European Olympic qualifying event next summer. He’ll be the most accomplished player on the team and the experience of competing at a high level with great expectations placed on him can only benefit him, the Pistons believe.
“The international competition will be good for him,” Perry said. “Any basketball experience a guy gets like that has to be of some benefit.”
“From the standpoint of having an opportunity to represent his country, it’s extremely valuable to him and extremely important to him,” David said. “It puts an expectation on him every game to perform for them to win.”
With the Pistons, the expectation is only that he’ll play hard, every night and every possession. It’s perhaps the expectation Joe Dumars and John Kuester carry into the season that they’re most certain will be met.