Gauntlet Ahead

In crucial run of games, Stuckey to meet sizzling young rivals Rose, Jennings

Rodney Stuckey will go head-to-head with last year's Rookie of the Year, Derrick Rose, and the front-runner to succeed him, Brandon Jennings, over the next two games.
Jonathan Daniel (NBAE/Getty)
Welcome to Rodney Stuckey’s world. Already carrying an inordinate burden with Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Gordon sidelined by injury, here’s what the rest of his work week looks like: a Wednesday matchup with reigning Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls; a Friday date with the front-runner to succeed him, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings; and a Sunday clash with Washington’s Gilbert Arenas, an MVP-level talent before sitting out most of the past two years with knee problems.

And, beyond that, another intriguing possibility. The Pistons will wrap up this four-game block of games against Eastern Conference opponents in similar straits – all of them on the heels of the East’s big four of Cleveland, Boston, Orlando and Atlanta, fighting for those final four playoff berths – at Philadelphia, where Allen Iverson, by all indications, will be suiting up for the 76ers.

“These next four games are very crucial,” Stuckey said after Tuesday’s practice, one that included post-practice sightings of Hamilton, Prince and Gordon all getting in some shooting, though Hamilton and Prince remain out while Gordon and Charlie Villanueva – who showed up in the morning but then left to get fitted for a protective mask for the broken nose suffered in Sunday’s win over Atlanta – are questionable.

“They’re all in a similar boat, but one thing about us is we’re in this position because we really don’t have our players healthy and those teams are playing with all their players. Hopefully, when we get everybody back, we can turn this all around.”

All of those teams have, in fact, been touched by injuries, too. Chicago is still without Tyrus Thomas, Milwaukee went without Michael Redd for 11 games and late Tuesday learned he’d skip the two-game road trip that includes The Palace due to a sore knee and Andrew Bogut just returned after missing six games, and Philadelphia’s interest in Iverson was driven by the broken jaw suffered last week by Louis Williams, while promising 76ers young big man Marreese Speights remains out with a knee injury.

But Stuckey’s point is well-taken. Nobody’s been confronted by injuries quite like the Pistons, which has forced John Kuester to ask much of Stuckey at both ends of the floor.

“The amount of pressure we’ve put on Rodney Stuckey, having to guard ones, twos and threes, he’s handled it extremely well,” Kuester said. “I’m very proud of the way he’s defended. He’s a competitor and he’s growing as an offensive player and as a leader.

“Both (Stuckey and Rose) of them are very talented players. The thing that Rodney continually gets better at is his ability to guard so many players. Joe Johnson, he did a great job. He’s guarded Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant – that’s one of the things that separates Stuckey from a lot of point guards is his ability to defend.”

The Pistons’ run of injuries, in fact, might relieve Stuckey of the duty of guarding Rose and Jennings, at least on a full-time basis. If Chucky Atkins starts, and even if Gordon is cleared to play and starts instead, Stuckey figures he’ll probably spend a good chunk of the Chicago game guarding 6-foot-7 shooting guard John Salmons.

But if he stays on the opposition point guard, he’ll span the spectrum of challenges in going from Rose to Jennings. In Rose, he gets a point guard with many of the same physical attributes that sets Stuckey apart – strength, speed and athleticism – and in Jennings he gets perhaps the NBA’s quickest point guard who changes direction in a heartbeat.

“Derrick Rose is young, athletic, can get up and down the court,” Stuckey said. “He’s really quick. I just see it as a challenge. I know Derrick Rose is one of the top young point guards, becoming one of the top point guards in the league. When you go up against somebody like that, it’s a challenge. And I’m always up for a good challenge.”

Stuckey welcomed Rose to the Pistons-Bulls rivalry with a memorable 40-point performance last December at The Palace. The Pistons needed about every point, too, winning 104-98. Rose got in early foul trouble and eventually fouled out in just 21 minutes, scoring 10.

“I don’t think about that game,” Stuckey said, then grinning, “but I’d like to do that again.”

Jennings, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the NBA’s most surprising players. Jennings was bound for Arizona until bypassing college altogether over concerns about his academic eligibility. He signed to play with Rome in the Italian pro league last season, but playing time dwindled as the year unfolded, making him extremely difficult for scouts – who’d had Jennings on their radar for years already – to properly evaluate.

“His circumstances were really unique, for sure,” said George David, Pistons personnel director. “I don’t think there’s been anybody that difficult to evaluate, that I can recall. Some guys have been challenges taking them where they were taken. There was a lot of scrutiny over Marvin Williams taken at two because he didn’t even start (for 2005 NCAA champion North Carolina, when Williams was a freshmen on a junior-dominated team that included first-rounders Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants).

When Jennings’ team made the playoffs last season – losing in a first-round upset to Angelico Biella, which included Jonas Jerebko – Jennings wasn’t even put on the active list. His agent pulled him from the NBA’s green room on draft night on fears that he’d fall out of the lottery altogether. But Milwaukee, led by former Pistons executive John Hammond, pulled the trigger at No. 10.

Jennings, named top rookie in the Eastern Conference for November on Tuesday, is the major reason Milwaukee – widely expected to be battling winless New Jersey and struggling New York for worst record in the East – is now among that group of teams fighting the Pistons for a playoff berth. The Bucks are 9-7 and currently sit in the No. 5 spot in the conference, though they’ve benefited from a favorable schedule.

Jennings is averaging 21.8 points and 5.7 assists in 35 minutes a game and, shockingly to scouts who questioned his shooting range and accuracy, he’s making half of his 3-point attempts while taking almost five per game.

“That was the big issue with him,” David said. “But one of the things that has helped him tremendously is that by getting off to a good start, his confidence has really gone up. It’s not the confidence of a rookie. To his credit, he doesn’t appear to be someone who was simply going to accept what the book on him was. And the book on him was that he can’t shoot or he can’t do this or that. He seems to be a guy that has been tackling every single one of those head on. I’m sure Milwaukee would tell you they wouldn’t be where they are without him.”

Among the players to whom Jennings has evoked comparisons are Tiny Archibald, Allen Iverson and Tony Parker for his quickness, change-of-direction ability, playmaking skill and, in Parker’s case, for the uncanny ability to get into the paint and drop floaters over the outstretched hands of shot-blockers.

“He’s very crafty and he can shoot the ball as well,” Stuckey said. “He was making tough shots (when Jennings scored 24, shooting 3 of 4 from the 3-point arc, in Milwaukee’s 96-85 home Oct. 30 win over the Pistons) that night. He’s just a great player and he’s put in his time to put up a lot of shots to get better and it’s paying off. He’s one of the good young point guards coming up in this league.”

Stuckey, in fact, thinks it might be time to start adding the floater to his offensive repertoire.

“That’s something I need to work on,” he said. “Instead of always going in there and banging my body against the big guys, maybe it’s time to start doing a couple of floaters.”

If he can borrow the best of the point guards he’ll run into this week alone as the Pistons run the gauntlet of Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls, his team’s playoff odds will increase dramatically.

“That’s just part of the NBA,” he said. “You’re going up against the best players each and every night. You’ve just got to be ready to play.”

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