By Brian Spencer
From out of the unbearable murk that has become the Detroit Pistons 2009-10 season, three updates on three Pistons covered in this space earlier this year:
– A little over 2 months ago I called out Tayshaun Prince for pulling an Ewok on the Pistons on the team’s youth movement and rebuilding process. I suggested that the team’s most vital, versatile glue player during the franchise’s most-recent glory years had morphed into a high-plains drifter, a man searching for a concrete role where one no longer existed.
Maybe I was too harsh.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been one of Prince’s biggest fans. (In the interest of full disclosure, for those not paying attention the last 3 years, I was born, raised, and remain a fierce Pistons’ supporter no matter how the wins-and-losses column reads.) I don’t particularly enjoy reading what I see as the writing on the wall for Prince (and Rip Hamilton, below), and of course wish he could forever be that beguiling 25-year-old talent with a flair for dramatic defensive stops and, most importantly, for winning. But while we can all forever appreciate what our aging heroes accomplished, only the delusional can dismiss the notion that Prince, now 30 years young, now has his better NBA days behind him.
That doesn’t have to mean, however, that he can’t stave off the inevitable a little bit longer than some might anticipate. Before the All-Star break, Prince was limited to just 19 games due a ruptured disc in his back, and his production during that stretch tumbled to near-career lows. Funny thing about injuries, though, is that even after they’re “healed”, they can still detrimentally impact performance.
That ruptured disc no longer seems to be a factor: in 15 games since the break, Prince has shot 50% from the field and is averaging 15.8 points, 5.9 boards, 3.9 assists, and almost 1 block and steal per. Though a small sample size, those would all be career highs if they were on the season. He’s become as aggressive on offense as I’ve perhaps ever seen him, shooting the ball with confidence, backing down overmatched defenders without hesitation, and essentially competing with Rodney Stuckey to become the team’s second-best scoring option behind Hamilton.
Trade Tayshaun Prince? Yes, sadly, I still think it can and should happen. Fortunately for the Pistons, his trade value this summer or next season has gotten much, much higher than it was at this year’s trade deadline, especially since he’s on the books for just one more season at $11.1 million.
Quick takes on Rip Hamilton and Jonas Jerebko after the break…
– With Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace both gone, who was going to be the Pistons’ most marketable player this season and moving forward? Free-agent additions Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva? Stalwart veterans and reminders of better days Hamilton and Prince? Former face of the franchise Ben Wallace, back after a few seasons spent adrift elsewhere? Or, maybe, emerging star Rodney Stuckey?
Five months ago nobody would have guessed the answer would be Swedish-born rookie Jonas Jerebko, who was taken midway through the second round of the draft and was not expected to contribute much this season. What a pleasant surprise to see Jerebko defy expectations and quickly make a name for himself in the league and endear himself to Pistons fans.
Since I announced his arrival back on December 1, all Jerebko has done is get better, and better, and better, cementing a job in the starting lineup at power forward over Villanueva and becoming one of the league’s premier irritants and hustle-stats guys. During Wallace’s heyday, fans flocked to the Palace donning afro wigs and went nuts for gongs of the Big Ben clock after a rebound, blocked shot, or alley-oop dunk. The clock still gongs, but it’s the blow of a viking horn recognizing a plus play from Jerebko that we’re hearing more and more. The wigs, too, have been replaced with viking horns.
And with good reason: Jerebko has been electric since the All-Star break (when he participated in the annual Rookie-Sophomore Challenge), averaging 11.5 points (51% FG), 6.8 boards, and 1.3 steals. Those aren’t huge numbers, but consider that he gets very few plays designed for him to score, and hey, numbers aren’t everything: the immeasurables are there, believe me, a fact reinforced by him becoming the first Detroit Pistons rookie to be named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (in February) since Zeljko Rebraca was honored back in 1992.
– Logic said that the Pistons weren’t planning to pay Ben Gordon $55 million over the next 5 seasons to back up incumbent starting SG Richard Hamilton. Given the team’s dearth of quality big men, it made sense to assume the team would immediately begin exploring any and all trade options for Hamilton; maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but as the season wore on, and as Hamilton spent much of the first few months watching from the bench and nursing a severely sprained ankle, it became clear that his trade value had plummeted to as low as it’s probably ever been since his ascension to perennial All-Starish status.
He became so difficult to watch, in fact, that I had to call him out for having one of the NBA’s worst contracts, which he actually does: he’ll collect an excess of $37 million, every penny of it guaranteed, over the next 3 seasons. Hamilton was pressing post-sprained ankle, taking nearly 17 shots per and making them at just a 39% clip before the All-Star break. But considering how much criticism I’ve leveled his way this season, his improved play over the past month or so deserves mention.
The old Rip Hamilton we’ve all come to appreciate has, mostly, resurfaced. His shooting has improved, his decision-making has improved, and like Prince, he’s done his best to put on a happy face despite mounting losses and increased his effort level, which was flagging for awhile there. And, guess what, he’s also outplaying Gordon and making him look like the superfluous piece, not the other way around.