After getting news on Jackson – 6-8 weeks, maybe more – Pistons trudge ahead with ‘next man up’

Ish Smith has recorded 25 assists and just 2 turnovers during the Pistons 4-game winning streak.
Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – There is no grade four ankle sprain, which means the news the Pistons took as a gut punch Wednesday – Reggie Jackson suffered a grade three sprain of his right ankle – was as bad as it gets.

A grade three sprain means the ligaments weren’t merely stretched or even partially ruptured. It means Reggie Jackson’s ankle ligaments now resemble the confetti that will litter the streets of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Jackson won’t merely be out for six to eight weeks. He’ll be re-evaluated after six to eight weeks, a period that falls between Feb. 7 and Feb. 21. If the re-evaluation process stretches to its outer limit and Jackson is cleared to begin easing back in to workouts at that point, the Pistons are looking at 30 or more games without their starting point guard – the guy who had 13 assists in 21 minutes in Tuesday’s rout of Indiana when his ankle gave out midway through the third quarter – and that’s something of a best-case scenario.

“It’s tough,” said associate head coach Bob Beyer – he pinch hit for Stan Van Gundy, absent to tend to a personal issue, to run Wednesday’s practice. “It’s tough for him. He was playing really well. That’s a big loss for us. But now we’ve just got to go next man up and move on.”

Next man up is Ish Smith and, in that, the Pistons are more fortunate than most. He’s a high-quality backup point guard who has a recent history of successful pinch-hitting for Jackson. When Jackson missed the first 21 games of last season after an October platelet-rich plasma injection, Smith led the Pistons to an 11-10 record in the face of a difficult schedule – 12 of those 21 came on the road.

Van Gundy likes to use Smith in shorter bursts – a 10-minute run in each half is the standard formula – to make best use of his speed and the pace he injects into the Pistons offense. Smith at his best is Smith playing 100 mph. Well, to be exact, at 4.96 mph – that’s the speed at which Smith plays, according to NBA stats, and nobody who’s averaged at least 10 minutes a game has ever been faster since they started tracking player movement in the 2013-14 season.

But he’ll assume Jackson’s minutes now as the starter, in all likelihood, and the 21-game stint Smith had last season at least gives the Pistons well-founded optimism that he – and they – will hold up well. In 29.6 minutes a game over that 21-game span, Smith averaged 10.8 points and 6.4 assists with only 1.5 turnovers a game while shooting .431.

“It’s a role that he’s somewhat used to,” Beyer said. “I think he feels more comfortable coming off the bench – that’s just him – but when called upon he’s one of those backup point guards that, because he’s played starter’s minutes in the past, it’s not going to be a huge adjustment for him.”

“You see the difference between Reggie and Ish – Ish is more of a transition guy,” said Langston Galloway, the other player most affected by Jackson’s injury, likely to assume some or most of Smith’s former role as the second-unit point guard. “Once he gets it, he’s gone. I think it’s going to give us another bonus with Ish being in the starting lineup.”

The greater threat to the Pistons isn’t what happens when Smith’s on the floor – though, make no mistake, you don’t lose one of the NBA’s top 15 point guards, and Jackson’s been all of that when healthy, and not suffer the effects – but when he’s on the bench.

Can Galloway, valued more for his 3-point shooting and fearlessness as a scorer, adjust to running the offense? He did just fine in a cameo earlier this month when Smith picked up three fouls and sat for most of the first half in a win at Atlanta. Can the Pistons get enough from Dwight Buycks, who made his debut in mop-up minutes in Tuesday’s rout, to complement Galloway or perhaps even assume Smith’s backup role?

Buycks is limited to 45 days as a two-way player, a handful of which have already been expended. He’ll almost surely exhaust his supply before Jackson gets back, which gives the Pistons the following options:

  • Exhaust Buycks’ 45 days and then convert him to a standard NBA contract, as a few teams – Phoenix with Mike James before parting ways, Atlanta with Tyler Cavanaugh – have already done.

  • Exhaust Buycks’ 45 days, keep him with the Grand Rapids Drive after that, sign another player for the rest of the season.

  • Use their open 15th roster spot to add another point guard now, which would allow them to continue to spend Buycks’ 45-day supply judiciously. One issue there: the two-way contracts have vacuumed up a lot of players who might have been candidates to fill that role. There probably aren’t a lot of ready-now point guards worth considering.

  • Explore the trade market for point guards.

    Too early?

    “I think our people upstairs in the personnel department always do a great job of opening up doors and talking about possibilities,” Beyer said. “So I’m sure that discussion was had. But our whole focus today in practice, the guys we have, really get them comfortable with our system.”

    Alas, they’re going to have about six to eight weeks, at least, to get comfortable. And that’s not very comforting for a team that woke up in the East’s No. 4 playoff position but two games from being out of the field altogether.