There is undeniable basketball DNA in Jonas Jerebko’s makeup.
His dad, Chris, played for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. His mom, Elaine, played professionally in Sweden. His uncle, Peter, was a deadeye shooter at LeMoyne.
Jonas, who was born in tiny, isolated, not-exactly-hoops-crazy Kinna, Sweden, some 22-plus years ago, played everything and anything before understandably settling on basketball.
“I played golf, soccer, handball, basically all sports,’’ he said. “But when I got to be 16 or 17, I concentrated on basketball.”
Good move. He sprouted to 6-8, which sort of ended any hopes he might have of becoming the next Jesper Parnevik. He started playing professionally in his native land at the age of 17, spurning not only a basketball scholarship to the University of Buffalo (where his paternal grandparents live) but also offers from some pretty high-powered European teams who had liked what they saw of Jerebko when he played for the national team.
“Real Madrid. Benneton Treviso, Bologna. They all offered contracts,” Jerebko said. “That changed my mind about going to college and put me in a whole different direction.”
He decided to stay in Sweden, where he played for two years. He then landed a job in Italy for Angelico Biella, an A League team outside Milan. He added weight. He grew an inch. His game improved. He toyed with entering the NBA draft after his first season in Italy, but decided to stay for a second.
“I’m glad I did,’’ he said. “It allowed me another year to grow.”
Then, last June, Jerebko was draft eligible and the Detroit Pistons chose him with the 39th pick. On the surface, this looked like it might have been one of those throwaway selections in the second round in which the player stays overseas and, maybe, crosses the pond at some future point. Jerebko had no such plans.
“I felt like I was ready,’’ he said. “I had two years under my belt in Italy.”
Said Pistons’ hoops boss Joe Dumars, “a couple of our scouts had seen Jonas play last season and we had a pretty good handle on who he was. We felt like it was a no-brainer to take him in the second round.”
And, Dumars added, he also felt that Jerebko intended to play in the NBA.
“But,’’ Dumars added, “we knew he was a good, young player. But he has exceeded our expectations so far.”
You think? Jerebko may not have been a household name outside of Kinna last June, but six months later, he is making it pretty much impossible not to be noticed by any semi-serious NBA observer. He has started 21 of the 22 games in which he has appeared, moving into the starting rotation on Nov. 3, helped by an injury (ruptured disc) sustained by Tayshaun Prince. He dropped a season-high 22 points on the LA Clippers on Nov. 27 and twice has gone for 11 rebounds.
He has endeared himself to the worker-conscious Pistons’ public, serving notice in the exhibition season when he got into a fight with Jamaal Magliore.
“It was just a reaction,’’ Jerebko said of the incident. “It was a physical game and something happened.”
He has been embraced by the Swedish players on the Detroit Red Wings, who have taken him to dinner and invited him to their games. He is finding the adjustment to the NBA much less difficult in terms of culture shock than his arrival in Italy after spending his entire life in Sweden.
And, he has made believers not out of just Dumars, but out of his coach, John Kuester, and his teammates, from veteran Ben Wallace to fellow rookie Austin Daye.
“You can get labeled in this game,’’ Kuester said, referring to the oft-held (if not necessarily true) that European hoopsters are not as rugged as their American counterparts. And weighing only 230, Jerebko does not come across as a brute.
“But our players respect him and recognize that he is one of the hardest workers on the team,” Kuester said. “He is not afraid at all to get his nose dirty out there. He takes a challenge.”
Arguably, Jerebko might already have met his biggest challenge – getting to the NBA after learning and playing the game in a country that isn’t exactly known for producing blue-chip basketball players. His dad played professionally in Sweden after his stint at Syracuse. It was in Sweden where Chris Jerebko met his wife and where the family (which also includes a daughter, 20-year-old Johanna, who plays professionally in the country) still resides.
Inarguably, Jonas Jerebko is the first player who was born in Sweden and went through the Swedish basketball system to make it to the NBA. And, incontrovertibly, he may be having the most surprising rookie season of any NBA newbie, even Brandon Jennings.
“I’m just a rookie,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect to be playing this much. But I think I’m doing pretty good so far.”
He not only is starting at the small forward position, he is playing nearly 28 minutes a game. He’s averaging 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds a game – and 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per in his last nine. Those are the kinds of numbers he submitted for his Italian League team.
But, Kuester hastens to add, numbers do not begin to define Jerebko’s impact.
“He gives us so many extra possessions with his hustle plays,’’ the coach said. “He can put the ball on the floor. He has guarded all the great players in our league and he moves his feet very well for a big man.”
What Kuester can’t say is what lies in store for his rookie forward when Prince does return. The Pistons have been decimated by injuries this season, but, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. And Jerebko has been the most pleasant of surprises in an otherwise underwhelming start for the Pistons.
“I don’t know when Tay (Prince) is coming back, but we will make a decision at that point,’’ Kuester said. “But I can tell you this: he (Jerebko) has gotta play.”