A Jonas Bonus

Strong final push for Jerebko could send him, Pistons into summer on positive vibe

Jonas Jerebko has been vital to the Pistons' performances, regardless of the final score.
Jared Wickerham/NBAE/Getty Images
As a rookie, Jonas Jerebko left little doubt that no one could possibly have more fun than he derived from playing basketball. When his stints on the court ended, he’d come to the bench with red cheeks that more often than not matched red floor burns on his knees and elbows.

The Pistons weren’t abundantly talented that season, 2009-10, but with Jerebko starting in place of an injured Tayshaun Prince, they put together a five-game November winning streak with a starting five that consisted of two players making the veteran minimum – Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace – plus Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey and the second-round rookie from Sweden. Together, they were earning less than $10 million, a sum dwarfed by more than 70 individual NBA players that season.

That Jonas Jerebko wasn’t much in evidence this season. Of course, any Jonas Jerebko wasn’t much in evidence over a 28-game span from late November to late January in which he played in just six minutes of one game.

But he was back, in all of his havoc-inducing, fan-pleasing glory, as the Pistons soundly beat Chicago on Sunday, snapping not only an 18-game losing streak against the Bulls but an eight-game drought at The Palace.

Jerebko had 17 points and nine rebounds, but as it always is with players defined by their infectious energy, the numbers insufficiently relate his impact on the 99-85 win.

“Jonas is just going to play hard every game,” said Brandon Knight, who led six Pistons in double figures with 20 points. “No matter what you get from him, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to play defense, he’s going to hustle, he’s going to attack the glass and he’s going to go for rebounds and he’s going to lift up the energy on the court.”

Just as it was impossible to miss the joy with which Jerebko played in his 27-minute stint, it would have been hard to miss how being taken out of the rotation affected his mood.

“It’s not fun to set on the bench when you want to play,” he said after Sunday’s win. “Just being out there is always fun.”

Lawrence Frank emphasized at every turn, starting in the preseason, that the situation at power forward would inevitably leave a worthy player or two out of the rotation. Until the late-January trade that brought Jose Calderon to Detroit, Frank had four players – incumbent starter Jason Maxiell plus Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye – fighting for minutes at one spot.

When the Pistons sputtered to a 3-10 start and Jerebko endured a shooting slump that might have affected other areas of his game, Frank moved Villanueva into the rotation for Jerebko. Over the next month, Villanueva’s hot 3-point shooting emerged as a critical element of a second unit that hinged on the Will Bynum-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll dynamic, which was further fueled by the space Villanueva’s deep shooting created.

The Pistons went 7-2 over a nine-game stretch that began in late December, which solidified the rotation Frank had settled on. When the second unit cooled and the trade that sent away Tayshaun Prince and Daye further altered the mix, Frank ultimately decided to play all three of Maxiell, Villanueva and Jerebko. Last week’s loss of Maxiell for the season to a detached retina pushed the door to playing time open further for Jerebko.

In four games over the past week, his numbers are gaudy: 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 68 percent shooting in 26 minutes a game. He doesn’t need to score as much or as efficiently to secure his place in Frank’s rotation or the franchise’s future, of course, but more of the Jerebko that hit the floor and dived into the second row of courtside seats in Sunday’s win would be ideal.

“I don’t think anybody can sit for 30, 40 games and then come in the first game and play like nothing’s happened,” he said. “It takes a while to get into it and with playing time comes confidence and you can show what you can do. I’m just working every day and trying to play as much as I can.”

Jerebko isn’t likely to look back fondly on the 2012-13 season, but if he is as involved in the outcome of the final four games as he’s been in the past four he’ll at least head into the off-season with momentum.

“I just want to finish strong, make the most of my minutes,” he said. “I feel good out there, so just keep doing what I’m doing and take that with me into the off-season, work hard in the off-season and come back even better.”

A strong finish from Jerebko might also convince Joe Dumars that he can allocate the off-season resources at his disposal – likely $25 million or more in cap space, primarily, plus a lottery pick – on other areas, secure in the strength of a frontcourt that would include Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Jerebko as building blocks.

“Jonas really through the last four games has played pretty well,” Frank said after the win over Chicago. “He was very, very active. You could feel his intensity and energy on the floor. That’s what he is. That’s a huge value. When you’re an effort, energy, hustle guy you’ll fall into stuff just because you’re playing harder than your opponent.”

That’s the Jerebko Pistons fans fell hard for as a rookie and the one they saw so resoundingly in a win that snapped two burdensome streaks. His play left little doubt that no one among the 19,577 at The Palace on Sunday was having any more fun than Jerebko, but he sure made the night a lot more fun for all of them, too.