The Coach And His Prodigy: Maurice Cheeks and Brandon Jennings

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Nov 15, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks and point guard Brandon Jennings (7) chat during a free throw in the fourth quarter of the game against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena. The Detroit Pistons defeated the Sacramento Kings 97-90 Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Maurice Cheeks can see into the future.

He demonstrated as much all those nights of yesteryear that he spent whipping tailor made passes past would-be, yet unsuspecting defenders to Philly teammates ranging from Julius Erving to Moses Malone to Charles Barkley.

Now, Cheeks is again confounding much of Hoops Nation with his bold and transformative predictions for Brandon Jennings, and how he envisions the free-spirited, thrill-seeking 24-year-old new jack morphing into one of the game’s most efficient and reliable ballers.

“I think Jennings has a chance to be very good,” Cheeks recently told ProBasketballTalk.com of his defensive potential and whether the Pistons might now be better served by having other players guard top-flight opposing point guards. “I keep talking about steps. You take steps … that’s how you become one of those elite players. You’d don’t become elite by having someone else guard your guy.”

And if Brandon Jennings has clearly proven himself to be sold on the idea of anything, it’s the thought of being branded one of the game’s elite. Jennings openly struggled to hide his disappointment with being left off the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2012, a snub he endured despite posting his best overall (17.5 points, 6.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds) statistical season.

But for all he’s done over his first five NBA seasons, Maurice Cheeks is now expecting more. It’s a good thing Jennings is already heralding his departure from Milwaukee and arrival in Detroit as a game-changing moment, because that is precisely what Maurice Cheeks is demanding.

For sure, the alliance between rookie coach and emerging star is, at times, an uneasy one. But then, what would you expect from same-skilled players who pride themselves on such different virtues?

“You’re going to see a whole different player,” Jennings, heretofore a shoot-first point guard, told reporters after the trade for Brandon Knight was announced. “I definitely have to change my game. The things that I was doing in Milwaukee, I won’t have to do here, take all the bad shots. Now, I can just actually be myself and be who I was five years ago when I was in high school, playing AAU basketball.”

But what he was implored to do then and required to do now are as different as shooting hoops is from tackling ball carriers. While Cheeks will probably be among the first to admit, as a player, he never possessed the speed and explosiveness of Jennings, he’ll just as easily assure you that his new point guard will never be the winner he’s known to be until he incorporates a greater measure of his selflessness and moxie into his game.

“It’s very important to figure out where a teammate should be and direct him where to go,” Cheeks told reporters of Jennings needed improvements. “It’s not an overnight thing where you learn how to play with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith. It takes a certain amount of time for a guy to do that. He’s still young, still figuring out the position. I think Brandon is learning a little of that.”

And the stakes couldn’t be any higher in Motown, where the Pistons are seeking to snap a four-season playoff drought around a core of Jennings and veteran post players Smith, Monroe and Drummond.

Though he’s been the team’s top scorer all season long, Jennings has struggled with his shooting, converting just 40 percent of all his shots and 35 percent of three pointers, noticeably down from his overall 42 percent shooting in 2011-12.

Clearly, the art of setting up everyone else’s shot has distracted him from concentrating on more of his own. “I’m just out there thinking too much when I’m playing,” Jennings recently told reporters. “I feel like I’m playing to prove everybody that I can be this fast for a point guard instead of just playing basketball.”

Somewhere, Maurice Cheeks is smiling at the thought of a prodigy recreating himself in the image of who he feels he needs to be.

“When you see those really good quarterbacks, and they get upset and they call timeout, that’s because somebody’s not in the position and they’re going to take the brunt of it, so they call timeout,” Cheeks told The Ann Arbor News.  “It’s the same thing. And I tell Brandon it’s the same thing.

“He’s the quarterback of that team,” he added.  “He’s got to take ownership of running our team and getting us into our precise things that we’re going to run. And if we miss a shot running our offense, so be it. But we’ve got to know exactly what we’re doing and where we’re going.”

Glenn Minnis is an XN Sports NBA contributor. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, ESPN, BET and AOL. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.
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