Major Impact

Cheeks’ chat with Smith spurs output spike for both him, Jennings

Josh Smith
Mo Cheeks is figuring out how to bring the best out of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings for the Pistons.
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ORLANDO – If all player-coach conversations Mo Cheeks conducts prove as fruitful as his recent chat with Josh Smith, it’s going to be a fun ride ahead for the Pistons.

Since Cheeks and Smith shared ideas for how to make better use of him for the good of the team, the numbers reflect a dramatic course alteration. Over the last six games, not only is Smith’s scoring up a full 10 points per game – 13.8 in his first 24 games, 23.8 since – but he’s scoring much more efficiently, too.

Much of that has to do with the type of shots he’s getting. Smith is shooting 49 percent in his last six after scuffling along at 38.5 percent over his first 24, when nearly one of every three of his attempts, 31 percent, came from the 3-point line. Since his talk with Cheeks – with the Pistons now making a point of establishing Smith in the low post early and often – just 16 percent of Smith’s shot attempts have been triples.

Smith has attempted 20 shots a game over the last half-dozen, six more attempts a game over the first 24. He’s been every bit as productive across the spectrum of his multi-pronged contributions, too, averaging 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks a game while shouldering a greater scoring burden.

Smith’s spike in productivity has gotten plenty of attention. Less noticed, perhaps, is the recent run by Joe Dumars’ other major off-season addition, Brandon Jennings. Over Smith’s six-game spurt, Jennings is averaging 19.3 points and 10 assists against just 1.8 turnovers while shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line.

Jennings, in fact, has been on a tear all of December. In 14 games this month, Jennings is averaging 19.5 points and 8.1 assists and has posted three games with 20-plus points and 10-plus assists. Jennings has five such games this season already, one more than he logged all of last season with Milwaukee.

Cheeks said having Smith as a staple of the offense has clicked in part because it’s helped streamline things for Jennings.

“When you have a guy like Josh, who’s really good around the rim, it adds one more dimension for Brandon to think about to eliminate some other things on the floor for him. I’m trying to simplify the whole game,” Cheeks said. “That’s one part of the game that makes it easy for him. ‘Let me run a couple of plays for Josh on the block.’ He has to put that in his brain with other players. ‘What do I do for Greg (Monroe)? What do I do for Andre (Drummond)?’ But that part of the game, it makes it a lot easier for him.”

Smith in the low post gives the Pistons two distinct advantages. First, he’s almost always guarded by a player smaller or less athletic, often both, which allows Smith frequent scoring chances in an area of the floor where he scores with great efficiency. Second, Smith’s passing gifts can be mined from the low post.

“Most of the threes are not as big as he is,” Jennings said after the Pistons practiced late Thursday afternoon in Orlando, where they’ll play the Magic on Friday night after the first three-day break of their season. “He always has a mismatch, almost every night. It’s important to utilize that and make sure we get that going early.

“That’s the game plan, to get him touches early – to get all our post guys touches early, in general. With those three bigs down there, it’s definitely hard to stop them. To begin the game, we want to go to all three of them just to get them some touches and to give them a rhythm.”

Jennings says he’s trying to keep in mind the need to get Monroe and Drummond their touches, as well, and to get teammates involved first before exploring his scoring opportunities.

“I just try to balance it as much as I can,” he said. “Early in games, I really don’t look for my scoring. I’m kind of a late gamer, especially when we have trouble scoring. I’m not worried about getting my numbers. I’m just making sure other guys get going and make sure they’re happy.”

The upward arcs of Smith and Jennings and the 7-1 record in their last eight road games could be signs the Pistons, who have endured the growing pains to be expected of a team with eight new faces and a new coach, are about to make everybody a little more happy.