Jennings’ D-League return a testament to his passion, Gores’ commitment

Brandon Jennings
Brandon Jennings will make his return from Achilles tendon rehab with the Grand Rapids Drive on Saturday.
Noah Graham (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Nice Christmas treat for the Grand Rapids Drive and Pistons fans in west Michigan: Brandon Jennings, indeed, will suit up for the Drive on Saturday when they host the Iowa Energy at 7 p.m.

It’s a gift courtesy of Jennings, for his willingness to defy convention and embrace the mere opportunity to play a competitive basketball game for the first time in nearly 11 months. But also on the gift tag, under the “From” line, it comes courtesy of Pistons owner Tom Gores.

Gores and his inner circle began exploring the benefits of landing the Pistons a D-League affiliate soon after he took over in June 2011 and it culminated in a partnership with local ownership interests in Grand Rapids to launch the Drive last season.

The Pistons under Stan Van Gundy have made great use of the Drive – from hiring his general manager during their Orlando days, Otis Smith, to coach the team the way Van Gundy wants it done to shipping young players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Darrun Hilliard there for valuable experience.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of guys with Brandon’s status in the league, even coming off an injury, who would do that,” said Van Gundy, who’ll board a bus with Pistons staffers and Jennings well-wishers to Grand Rapids for the game. “But Brandon just loves to play basketball. I asked him, ‘Do you want this publicized or kept quiet.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. I just want to hoop.’ That’s Brandon. He truly loves to play basketball.

“Number two, I think it shows how important the commitment Tom was able to make to have a D-League team and putting money into it. We’ve already gotten a value of last year sending Spencer and Quincy Miller there and this year sending Spencer and Darrun down. Now you’ve got a guy who can be a big part of what you do and you’ve got somewhere close by where you can send him and he can play. Those kinds of things seem minor when we’re talking about ownership commitment, but that’s a big one. We can send Brandon there to get significant minutes.

“That’s a tremendous advantage and it’s great Tom made that commitment and it’s great that Brandon is willing to do what he’s doing.”

It’s part of baseball culture, of course, for veterans to take a game or two for a minor league rehab assignment. But it’s rare in the NBA. And it’s apples and oranges. A shortstop who goes to the minors and flubs a ground ball will get a pass for being rusty. An established NBA player going one on one with a hungry D-League player – and there are a few dozen D-League guards dying to prove they belong in the NBA and eager to show up one of its established players in his first live action since late January – risks a little public embarrassment.

“Not a lot of guys (would),” Van Gundy said. “But from our standpoint, how well Brandon plays is absolutely meaningless from my standpoint. I don’t have an expectation one way or another. It’s a matter of him getting minutes and getting up and down the court. I’m not judging him at all. I just want him to get minutes and I think that’s more important – how much he’s able to run up and down.”

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