After a summer well spent, Jerebko confident Pistons on the right track
Jonas Jerebko takes enormous pride in his Swedish heritage and representing his country, far from a basketball power, in international competition. But he also has strong roots in the United States – his father grew up in upstate New York and moved to Sweden after college to play professionally there – and always harbored the desire to play in the NBA.
Entering the final year of the four-year contract he signed with the Pistons coming out of the 2011 lockout, he understands the stakes ahead of him. So he opted not to play for the Swedish national team in EuroBasket qualifying this summer, instead spending all but a few days of it here and unofficially winning the award for most time spent inside the team’s practice facility.
It wasn’t lost on Stan Van Gundy, who in June included Jerebko’s name when talking about the players he considered part of the team’s core.
Now he’ll have to fight to be part of its rotation.
Before free agency, the opportunity might have been greater for him at small forward. But Van Gundy landed Caron Butler to compete with Kyle Singler there for minutes. Now it appears as if Jerebko’s best shot at carving out a niche is winning the role of “stretch four,” a designation that played a critical role in Van Gundy’s offenses built around Dwight Howard in Orlando.
“Yeah, I hope to fill that role,” he said this week. “I know he likes players like that, so I hope to fill that role. I’m going to do whatever he needs me to do, whenever he calls my name.”
From the time he was thrown into the starting lineup in his second game as a rookie and admirably battled Vince Carter, Jerebko has always played with a swagger that seemed incongruous given his unique basketball background. But his confidence, he admits, was staggered a year ago when he fell out of Maurice Cheeks’ rotation.
“It’s tough when sometimes you don’t play for five games and you get no explanation why and you don’t get a chance. Mentally, that’s tough,” he said. “It’s the NBA and everybody can play, so you’re just waiting for your opportunity and if you get it, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
With Josh Smith apparently ticketed to spend the bulk of his time at power forward this season, the opportunity for anyone other than Smith or Greg Monroe to see minutes at that spot could be limited. But Van Gundy also knows he needs to space the floor to maximize the impact Andre Drummond and the guards who engage in pick-and-roll sets with him can have. And spacing the floor is easier to accomplish when you can line up shooters at all four spots surrounding Drummond.
That’s where Jerebko comes in. When John Loyer, after taking over for Cheeks, returned Jerebko to the rotation and he got his legs under him, the Jerebko who so endeared himself to Pistons fans as a rookie five years ago gradually re-emerged. And with a jump shot. Over his last 14 games, Jerebko hit nearly 50 percent of his 3-point shots – 19 of 39 – and shot 42 percent for the season to lead the team. He’s coming back an even more confident shooter after launching thousands of shots this summer.
“For sure. I’ve had a great summer shooting the ball with (assistant coaches) Bob (Beyer) and Malik (Allen) and Charles (Klask),” he said. “I feel confident. I shot it well last year – I just wanted to get some more up. I feel great. Shot feels good and my body feels good and so I’m excited to get going.”
When his sister, Johanna, delivered her first baby six weeks ago – a girl, making Jonas a first-time uncle – he returned to his hometown of Kinna for five days, then got right back to work. He knows Van Gundy demands full effort and the faith that such effort will be rewarded thrills him.
“I wanted to get in the best shape possible to play as many minutes as hard as I can,” he said. “With the intensity I want to play on defense, I want to be a little bit everywhere. I want to get deflections, I want to do the stuff that nobody else does – dive for balls, get the extra possessions, tip-ins, all that stuff. If you’re going to do that, you can’t be out of shape. You’ve got to go up and down the floor. That’s something I pride myself in, so I’ve got to be in good shape.”
The entire team has been taking part in group workouts the past few weeks, even joined by Andre Drummond fresh off of his return from Spain and winning the World Cup gold medal this week, and Jerebko likes what he has come to know about Van Gundy already.
“We’re going to have a lot of ball movement – the ball won’t get stuck,” he said. “We’re going to help each other on defense. We’re going to make sure everybody’s playing their hardest and we’re a collective group and not individuals, which is very important. I like his philosophy. Everybody is buying into it.”
He also comes into training camp with a sense that the habitual breakdowns that have led to bottom-10 defensive rankings the past few years will be solved under Van Gundy.
“I just think it comes with holding people accountable,” he said. “If somebody makes a mistake, or makes it again, get somebody else in there and do it right so he sees how to do it. Lead by example. His defensive principles, we’re working on now. It’s all team oriented. You can’t stop LeBron or (Kevin Durant) by yourself. It’s got to be team defense. You’re going to give up something, so make sure it’s what you want to give up and not easy layups.”
Jerebko, now second in tenure only to Will Bynum, will be playing for his fifth head coach in Van Gundy. He feels a sense of stability now he hasn’t before.
“Time flies,” he grinned. “I’ve had great years here. I like the NBA, I like this organization, the fans and the people have been good to me here. It’s gone fast. I’m a veteran now.”
His future beyond this year, he knows, depends on how this season unfolds. And that’s why he chose to stay here and not play for the national team but work on honing his skills and coming to camp in peak condition.
“I worked on everything. It’s really just about shooting the ball and putting it on the floor, one-dribble pull-ups, mid-range, handling the ball,” he said. “I’ve been working on all of that, so I feel like I’m a more complete basketball player than I was last year and I’ve got a lot more confidence. Previous years have been a lot more up and down and now I feel like we’ve got some consistency. We’ve got some good pieces in here and the confidence is high. Everybody’s in here and it’s just a good atmosphere.”