So maybe the Pistons’ strength coach wasn’t surprised when Jonas Jerebko finished first, and not by a little, in overall athleticism among the 50-plus prospects Joe Dumars invited to The Palace last spring prior to the NBA draft.
“Loved him,” Kander said when I asked him about Jerebko. “Loved him, loved him, loved him.”
The first thing that amazed Kander was how naturally Jerebko took to the tests, which are unlike any administered by the NBA’s 29 other teams.
“It starts with some dynamic flexibility,” Kander said. “How high they can lift their feet against a wall. They’ve got to really reach up and he was doing the splits. He looked like Jean Claude Van Damme with the blond hair flowing. It was like … wow!
“I told him, ‘That’s pretty amazing. Have you done that before?’
“ ‘Nope, never done it.’
“Got him on the balance board. He jumped up and locked in like he was a surfer. Literally. He just said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And I’m like, ‘All right, you’ve trained on these before. You can’t naturally do this.’
“ ‘Nope, never done it.’ ”
“All of Arnie’s stuff was new to me,” Jerebko said when I asked him about that day. “On all the workouts (with other teams) we had testing, but Arnie’s testing was different. It’s a fun way to work out. But I’ve never been on a balance board. I’ve never surfed, never snowboarded or anything like that.”
“We did speed drills with the basketball,” Kander continued. “It was like he played the piano – zip, zip, zip. His hands are unbelievably fast. And then we get into a vertical jump drill. Jumped out of the gym. Fluid, like he was Baryshnikov. Fly up, come down. Anything I asked him to do in the drill, he could do.
“Then we get on the court. ‘OK, let’s see if all this works on the court.’ And we do a couple of speed and agility drills and a couple of vertical drills, and then we combined speed with vertical. Every drill, he was by far the top guy.”
Not bad for a guy from Sweden, where as Jerebko said in the first few days of training camp, basketball is perhaps the No. 7 or 8 sport. Not bad for a European, who – or so the stereotype goes, at least – are supposed to be more cerebral than athletic.
Though Jerebko was born in Sweden and spent his life there before playing professionally the past two seasons in Italy, he’s no stranger to the United States. His father, Chris, is an American who played college basketball for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and then migrated to Sweden to play professionally, eventually meeting his wife there and sinking roots.
Jonas, driven by his love of basketball, would spend summers in the U.S. attending basketball camps unavailable to him in Sweden. He almost played college basketball in America, signing a letter of intent with Buffalo after considering West Virginia, coached then by John Beilein, and his father’s alma mater, but signed two weeks later to play professionally in Sweden after graduating high school.
Pistons executives Tony Ronzone, their international scouting guru, and personnel director George David both saw Jerebko play in Italy last year. They thought there was no chance he’d slip out of the first round, especially after leading his underdog Biela team to a first-round upset of Rome in the Italian playoffs and then showing well at the Reebok Eurocamp, the European version of the NBA’s Chicago predraft camp.
But when he slid all the way to 39 in the second round, the Pistons jumped on the chance to take Jerebko, even though his agent was calling teams in the 30s to tell them to pass because Jerebko had a promise from Charlotte – picking one spot after the Pistons at 40 – to keep him on its roster rather than asking him to spend another year in Europe.
The Pistons weren’t making any promises, but they felt on draft night that Jerebko – based partly on his dazzling predraft workout, where he also measured a shade taller than 6-foot-10 in shoes – was very likely to be worthy of a roster spot. And he reinforced their faith with a strong showing in Summer League despite a snafu with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, that limited him to one partial practice before games began.
Both Pistons assistant coaches who ran the team in Las Vegas, Darrell Walker and Pat Sullivan, in separate conversations evoked Knicks forward David Lee when discussing Jerebko for his athleticism, his motor and his potential to be a force in pick-and-roll sets for the way he can crash the rim and also shoot from the perimeter.
That’s a comparison that flatters Jerebko – sort of.
“I’m going to be honest – I’ve only seen David Lee’s stats,” he said. “I’ve been playing fantasy basketball, so I’ve only seen his stats. That’s a nice comparison, but I don’t really know.”
Kander has another comparison: Dennis Rodman.
“He runs like Dennis Rodman to me a little bit,” he said. “Just that beautiful, loping stride. He can do some unbelievable things when you watch him scrimmage, go off one foot and dunk.”
“That’s a very nice comparison for me,” Jerebko said, surprised and almost blushing. “It’s very flattering. It’s very good.”
One other name that’s been thrown out by those who remember basketball before baggy shorts: former Phoenix Suns star Tom Chambers, a tremendous scorer and leaper in the ’80s and early ’90s.
He’ll need time to pull it all together, of course. Time spent with Kander, working on his strength and his conditioning. Toward the end of workouts, Jerebko loses his legs and his explosive athleticism along with it. And he’ll need to adjust to American professional basketball – and to America, for that matter – and the size and speed of NBA athletes.
John Kuester has been high on the potential of all three Pistons 2009 draftees since watching them in Las Vegas. Of Jerebko, Kuester said, “He can shoot. He’s got a great motor and he gets up and down the court. He wants to become better.”
In one of Kander’s tests, he measures a player’s vertical jump, how long they stay on the floor and how high they go on a second leap. It doesn’t matter so much how high they get on the first leap. He wants to know how quickly they can get back up and if the second jump can match the first.
Jerebko passed that one with flying colors, too.
“Quick jumper – very quick jumper,” Kander said. “His second jump was right there with his first. I want to see a high jump with a quick response and then another high jump. That’s the Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman tip-tip-tip.”
Ben Wallace. Dennis Rodman. David Lee. Tom Chambers. For the first Swedish player to ever crack an NBA roster, Jonas Jerebko sure evokes some enticing comparisons.