By Brian Spencer
That’s not all he is.
In addition to being the best Swedish-born player to ever don a NBA jersey, Detroit Pistons rookie forward Jonas Jerebko is also the country’s tallest, fastest, smartest, and most athletic import, as well as its most prolific contributor on the NBA stats sheet.
All of this, and his NBA career has only spanned 15 regular-season games. Okay, fine… he’s also the only Swedish-born player to ever play in the NBA, but exaggerations aside, this kid is making a name for himself. In fact, he’s made a more significant impact for his injury-riddled Pistons than many of the 38 players drafted before him have made for their respective squads.
(On a side note, for a rookie class that was billed as one of the weakest in recent history, I’ve been impressed by the number of solid contributors who’ve already carved out a role for themselves on teams both in and out of contention. Keep it up, gentlemen.)
The 22-year-old Jerebko, taken 39th overall after spending a few seasons in the Italian League, was pressed into extended action much earlier than most anticipated after incumbent starter Tayshaun Prince went down with a ruptured disc in his back. I’d seen flashes of Jerebko’s potential during his appearances in the Las Vegas Summer League, but we all know that most everything you see there is but a passing desert mirage: rarely does production in those glorified pickup games translate to anything tangible at the actual NBA level. In this case, however, Jerebko has actually topped his Summer League play.
Through 15 games, Jerebko is averaging entirely modest measurables: 6.5 points (on 47% FG), 4.7 boards, 0.4 steals, and 0.5 blocks in just over 25 minutes a night. His greatest value, however, falls squarely under that somewhat cliched “intangibles” umbrella: he’s a basketball garbage man who does the kind of dirty work that the league’s very best glue players relish. Comparisons to Utah Jazz irritant Matt Harpring wouldn’t be offbase, though Jerebko seems to have more upside: he hustles and fights for loose balls, hits the glass (hard), cans open triples when the opportunity presents itself, and perhaps most importantly, assumes the unenviable task of guarding All-Pro forwards and shooting guards.
That list already includes guys named LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Jason Richardson, Brandon Roy, Andre Iguodala, Hedo Turkoglu, and Caron Butler. His opponents have made him look foolish, but more often than not, he’s held his own, as much as any rookie dubbed a “long-term project” could be expected to against such elite competition. I’d argue that in some of those matchups, he’s actually acquitted himself better than Prince has in recent seasons (which isn’t to say that Prince isn’t still a better overall option, on both sides of the floor).
In that sense, Prince’s injury has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Jerebko; his early-season experience against players of this caliber will prove invaluable in his development and adjustment to the rigors of NBA life. Defense and rebounding is where the 6-10 Swede will be asked to hang his hat during his rookie season, and if you’ve seen his, ahem, unpolished offensive repertoire in action, you’d know why. There’s nothing pretty about his sweeping hook shots in the lane, his clumsy dribble drives, or his awkward free-throws, though he has shown competency from behind the arc.
His lack of offensive grace is okay though; he’s shown more on both ends of the floor than expected, and as Patrick Hayes wrote on Full Court Press, defense, rebounding, hustle, and the occasional offensive cherry aren’t the only things that have separated Jerebko from fellow rookies Austin Daye (15th overall) and DaJuan Summers (35th):
A commonality among rookies, particularly less heralded ones like the Pistons have, is for them to become timid when they make a mistake or two offensively. Jerebko does the exact opposite: he seems to become more motivated and active after he makes a bad play. He fights to get the ball back and doesn’t stop trying to make things happen. Sometimes it results in poor possessions or mistakes or ugly basketball. But one thing it doesn’t result in is allowing the opposing defender to rest against him.
If a player becomes timid on offense or doesn’t want the ball, it’s quite easy for the other team to ignore him. Jerebko’s made a lot of mistakes, but his ability to compete keeps him on the court consistently and is turning him into a very important player.
Casual NBA fans might scan the early-season standings and see the Pistons have sunk to the bottom of the Central Division with an underwhelming 6-11 record. Not surprising given the lingering injuries to Prince, Rip Hamilton, and now Ben Gordon, but Jerebko is one of the new additions that’s made this team watchable again. Last season, they mostly were not. They might be on the thin side of the NBA talent pendulum, but they scrap, they claw, and they fight. There’s a difference between listless, aimless sub-.500 teams and those that play with a purpose; thus far, the Pistons have proven their mettle.
And though that ethos didn’t start with Jerebko–that’s Ben Wallace’s job–the best Swedish-born player in NBA history has bought into it, and has been a big part of it. God utställning, Jonas, God utställning.