Brandon Jennings doesn’t have to look far – maybe 15 feet, directly across from his spot in the horseshoe-shaped Pistons locker room – to find someone empathetic to his plight.
Reggie Jackson knows what it’s like to be a starting-caliber point guard locked in place behind another, having lived it for the first three-plus years of his career in Oklahoma City.
“We all know what he could do. He had 55 as a rookie,” Jackson said after Jennings’ breakout game in Monday’s 26-point win over Orlando. “He’s been a high-volume scorer in this league, a very good player, and he knows what he’s capable of. I can only imagine what goes through his mind, especially the position he’s getting put in with how good he was doing before he had his injury last year. It just makes this moment that much more special because he’s been nothing but a great teammate.”
The Pistons have tied their future to Jackson, who has emerged as a top-10 point guard in his first season as a full-time NBA starter, averaging 19.7 points and 6.4 assists. But Stan Van Gundy sees room for both – certainly for the remainder of this season, as Jennings ramps up to a more substantial role, and even beyond.
“Our plan right now is that Brandon can help us make a playoff push,” Van Gundy said. “That’s our plan right now. If something changes in the next five weeks” – a reference to the February trade deadline – “then we’ll look at it. But right how he’s a very good player who can help us. And that’s the only way we’re looking at it.”
What Jennings offers – at least the Jennings who led the 12-3 surge last January before being hurt, and the one who put up 17 points and six assists in 18-plus minutes Monday – fills a critical need for the Pistons: a scoring playmaker to ignite the second unit.
The group of Jennings, Aron Baynes, Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver – usually playing with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Marcus Morris – has been playing its best basketball of the season over the past few weeks. And the transition from Steve Blake – whose play in December sparked the bench’s turnaround after a rough November – to Jennings did nothing to disrupt its momentum.
“Number one, you’ve got a whole group that’s really willing to move the ball and does a pretty good job of it,” Van Gundy said. “And now they’re starting to figure each other out a little bit. You’re starting to see some chemistry with Stanley and Aron developing. (Tolliver) has always been a guy that helps your chemistry because he either shoots an open shot or passes it. He doesn’t mess around. Aron’s a great screener, which helps. And then we’ve either got Marcus or KCP in there, which gives you a guy you can run some offense through, too. With Steve, they were already developing some stuff and Brandon being inserted has not slowed that down.”
The fact Jennings has hit the ground running – and nearly at full speed – came as something of a surprise and mostly as a relief to him, he admits.
“I didn’t think it was going to come that fast,” he said. “But it did, so it definitely feels good.”
One reason the return has been so seamless, Van Gundy said, is the patience all parties exercised in not rushing him back.
“We did wait until he was ready,” he said. “We did a lot of things along the way to make sure he was ready – getting him work in practice, getting full-court work, getting up to play in the D-League. We didn’t put him back out there before he felt comfortable to go. But it’s still different in an NBA game and you’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”
The process to increase Jennings’ role is well under way, too. Van Gundy is looking for ways to use Jackson and Jennings together, which not only will give the Pistons a different look but help cut down on the heavy minutes logged by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris.
“We’re already in the thought process of things we can run playing he and Reggie together at times,” Van Gundy said. “That’s something we’ll be ready for. It’ll probably be a while before we get to that – but probably not a long while.”
With the Pistons in the thick of playoff contention for the first time in six seasons, the focus is more on the last 47 games than next season and beyond. But Van Gundy and Jennings, who’ll be a free agent in July, have talked about the possibilities for that future.
“There’s a lot of things that would go into it,” Van Gundy said, “but I’m a big Brandon fan. I like Brandon. I’m a big Reggie fan, too, and I think that they could, at times, operate very well together. We just have to see where it goes.”
As they romped to a 26-point win over Orlando on Monday, it was hard to believe it would be anything but a pretty fun ride to get there.