With Jennings out, Van Gundy forced to go elsewhere for production
The news from Brandon Jennings Sunday afternoon wasn’t a surprise.
That doesn’t make it any easier for him or the Detroit Pistons.
As expected, Detroit’s point guard will miss the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in Saturday night’s loss in Milwaukee. Jennings has been playing at the highest level of his career during Detroit’s surge into the playoff picture — he was averaging 19.8 points and 7.0 assists since Christmas — and Stan Van Gundy will now have to replace that production.
D.J. Augustin will get most of Jennings’ minutes, and he has shown the ability to lift his game when teammates go down. Last season, playing more than 30 minutes a game for Chicago with Derrick Rose limited by injury, he averaged 14.9 points and 5.0 assists. He’s played at close to that level this year with Detroit, albeit in fewer minutes, with one major exception. Last season, he hit 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers for the Bulls, while he is making a career-low 28.3 percent this season.
Van Gundy’s offense lives and dies by the 3-pointer, so the Pistons will be hoping that more playing time will give Augustin a chance to find his shooting rhythm. They are also going to need rookie Spencer Dinwiddie to go from the D-League to the rotation very quickly. Dinwiddie has only played in nine games for the Pistons this season, but barring a trade or free-agent signing, he’s going to have to play 12-15 minutes a night as the team’s only other point guard.
Dinwiddie won’t be expected to be a scorer when he’s on the floor, but he will still need to be enough of a threat to keep defenses from ignoring him, and he’ll have to keep the ball moving — something he’s never been asked to do in a rotation role.
So, in the short term, the Pistons will be relying on one player to do things that he’s done before in Augustin, and one to do things that he’s never done — Dinwiddie.
Beyond this season, there is a different set of questions waiting. Given the normal recovery period of 6-9 months for an NBA player — something he confirmed in a tweet Sunday — Jennings will have a good chance of being ready for the start of the 2015-2016 season.
Kobe Bryant missed eight months after tearing his Achilles in 2013 — a timetable that would have Jennings returning in time for the start of training camp — while even a nine-month recovery would get him back in late October, just when Detroit will be starting the season.
However, that doesn’t mean he will return as the same player that has led the Pistons back into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. A study by doctors from Drexel University showed that only 11 of 18 players returned to the league after such injuries — Bryant and Chauncey Billups, who were injured after the study, make it 13 of 20 — and they lost both stamina and effectiveness.
That will be a major question for Jennings, since so much of his game relies on his speed and athletic ability. Guards have had more trouble returning from an Achilles injury that bigger, slower players.
Jennings, though, is only 25, much younger than other players who sustained the injury. Billups was 35 and already declining as a player, Bryant was 34 and Isiah Thomas was 35 and had already decided to retire.
Dominique Wilkins, while not a guard, was a player who had unmatched explosive ability before he ruptured his Achilles in 1992. He was 32 at the time of the injury, but returned after nine months of rehab at an All-Star level. Wilkins adjusted his game, but averaged 29.9 points a game in his first season back and played for an additional seven seasons.
In the long term, that’s the hope for Jennings. It might take time for him to adjust his game, but with his age and improved rehab technology, there’s a good chance he will be able to return at a high level next season.