‘I Just Want to Play’

Jerebko getting his swagger back with steady Pistons role under Loyer

Jonas Jerebko
Jonas Jerebko scored a season-high 22 points against the LA Clippers on Saturday.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
SALT LAKE CITY – Since he arrived from Sweden by way of Italy nearly five years ago, Jonas Jerebko’s default line is “I just want to play.” Whether the subject is starting or coming off the bench, power forward or small forward or role within the team framework, his answers always circle back to “I just want to play.”

Since John Loyer took over for Maurice Cheeks 18 games ago, he’s gotten just that chance. Probably not for the duration he’d like, but only in one of those 18 games did Loyer not summon Jerebko from the bench. In 50 games under Cheeks, Jerebko didn’t doff his sweats 17 times. When he did play, he averaged eight minutes a game. It’s been 12 a game under Loyer.

“He always plays with tremendous energy,” said Loyer, who spent two years as an assistant under Lawrence Frank with Jerebko and came to appreciate the things he does that the box score doesn’t always capture. “When Jonas plays within what he’s very, very good at, he’s a good player.”

With a much more consistent role has come a gradual restoration of … confidence? Not quite right.

Jerebko has always displayed a brashness that seemed out of place in someone who arrived from a country known far more for producing hockey players or skiers than elite basketball players. But anyone’s faith in his abilities would be tested by the apparent lack of faith displayed by others, not to mention the rust that needs to be knocked off when sitting idle for unaccustomed lengths.

Jerebko had been showing signs of the frisky rookie who so endeared himself to Pistons fans, coaches and management in recent weeks under Loyer, but he exploded in Saturday’s loss to the Clippers. In 27 minutes – his season high by six – he matched his career high with 22 points and easily topped his previous season best for rebounds with nine. Throw in two steals and two assists.

It was the type of performance that validated the faith Joe Dumars showed in Jerebko coming out of the 2011 lockout when Jerebko only had that rousing rookie season on his resume by giving him a four-year contract despite the Achilles tendon tear that cost him all of the 2010-11 season.

“I’m just trying to stay ready when my name is called and trying to take care of my minutes,” he said afterward. “Today I was out there a little longer than usual and I like to be out there. I’m just trying to work as hard as I can in practice and when the game comes. Just try to stay ready and when my number is called, just go out there and play.”

Jerebko came to the Pistons while they were in transition in 2009. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess had left as free agents and Amir Johnson was traded away. They added Charlie Villanueva in free agency that summer, as well as Chris Wilcox and Kwame Brown while bringing back Ben Wallace.

Drafted after Austin Daye and DaJuan Summers, two other combo forwards, Jerebko proved himself the most NBA ready. So when ironman Tayshaun Prince went down with a back injury in the season’s first month, Jerebko was thrown into the fray as the starting small forward and didn’t blink.

The frontcourt has been bolstered since then with the drafting of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and last summer’s free-agent addition of Josh Smith. That made the competition for playing time tougher for Jerebko, who came into the season locked in a battle with Villanueva for what appeared a support role as the No. 4 big man behind Monroe, Drummond and Smith.

Under Cheeks, that spot become a revolving door with Jerebko, Villanueva and newcomers Josh Harrellson and Gigi Datome all getting shots but each on a short leash. From his first game as coach, Loyer went to Jerebko and hasn’t wavered. Jerebko’s per-36 minutes production has rewarded Loyer’s faith: He’s averaing 13.5 points and nine rebounds by that metric, slightly above his career norms.

His place in the rotation would be cemented further if he can continue to provide a 3-point threat. He won’t hit 5 of 7 every night, as he did against the Clippers, but Jerebko is now hitting 40 percent from the arc for the season. If he can keep it above 35 percent – the NBA average – while maintaining his penchant for stirring things up, he’ll be hard to keep out of the lineup.

“It’s good for Jonas to make shots,” said Will Bynum, one of only three teammates – Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey the others – who’ve been Pistons for the entirety of his NBA career. “It’s tough mentally when you’re coming off the bench and you don’t know what to expect, but Jonas has been doing a good job of staying positive and continuing to work and that’s all you can do.”

“Whatever my team needs me to do,” Jerebko said of the added value he brings if he can fulfill “stretch four” obligations while remaining the hustle and energy force he’s always been. “I have confidence in my shot and I’m just going to let it fly when I’m open.”