Jonas Jerebko is the first Swede to play in the NBA and he is already proving Swedish basketball isn't half bad.
by Chipp Reid
The Detroit Red Wings are no longer the only team in the Motor City looking to Sweden for a star.
The Detroit Pistons became the first NBA team to sign a Swede this past fall when they reached a deal with Helsingborg native Jonas Jerebko, a 6-foot-9-inch power forward who previously played in the top division of the Italian basketball league.
Although the Pistons aren’t likely to build a team around Swedes like their hockey counterparts, Jerebko has eclipsed his ice-skating countrymen in popularity as the Swedish media has turned in droves to document his every move.
“Basketball is not a big sport, but I'm trying to make it bigger back home, which is good. I got a lot of newspapers coming out, and TV and radio and everything. I'm just trying to make the sport bigger,” Jerebko said. “Each day it is getting bigger.”
So, too, is the rookie’s importance to his team. Detroit suffered a dip in form last season, going 39-43 after six straight winning and playoff seasons. This year, head coach John Kuenster is rebuilding the team and at first, the Swede figured to be a substitute. That, however, was before Tayshaun Prince went down with a back injury.
Now, Jerebko is a starter and Kuenster said so far, the Swede is more than holding his own.
"One of the things that's interesting is that he hasn't figured out he's supposed to be scared," coach John Kuester said before Wednesday night's game against the Raptors. "He keeps coming in there and playing with a lot of passion.”
The high point of the early season for the Swede came Nov. 17 when the Pistons faced the defending league champion Los Angeles Lakers. Jerebko drew the unenviable task of trying to guard superstar Kobe Bryant. Although Bryant scored 40 points – the last coming on a three-pointer when Jerebko was on the bench - the Swede said he enjoyed the battle.
"He's the best player in the league in my opinion," said Jerebko, who had eight points, two rebounds and an assist in 29 minutes against the Lakers. "It was tough but it's fun to play against such a good player. It was an experience."
Jerebko comes from a basketball family. His father, Chris Jerebko, played for Syracuse before moving to Sweden where he played in the Elitserien. His uncle, Peter Jerebko, played basketball and later coached at Le Moyne College, where he formed a fast friendship with current University of Michigan head coach John Bielein, who called Peter Jerebko, “one of the greatest shooters, could be as good of a shooter I’ve ever had at any time.”
Jonas is cut in the same mold.
“He really has a great feel for the game. He can really shoot the ball, really shoot the ball,” Bielein said. “I love that he can block shots. At the college level, he was going to be able to block some shots, even though he’s a forward. He has great timing.”
Bielein tried to recruit Jerebko to play for him at West Virginia but the Swede, at the time, decided to play at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York.
“He chose University of Buffalo because that’s where the family’s real home is,” Bielein said. “That’s where the grandpa is. All the uncles are there. A lot of the grandchildren are there. But then, (he) decided in that spring to go pro instead of going to college.”
Jerebko signed with Club Marbo in 2005 and moved to Elitserien powerhouse Plannja Basket in 2006. He went to Italy in 2007 to play for Angelico Biella in the Italian A League, where he spent two seasons before the Pistons took him in the 2009 draft. When he made his debut for the Pistons against the Toronto Raptors, it was a dream come true for the Swede
“I was excited,” he said. “Family was there, from Buffalo. The first three minutes, you go in cold, the first time you get on the floor, the chest doesn’t want to go with your legs. But it was fun.”
Jerebko had six points, six rebounds in 17 minutes, and had an even bigger impact, “On the little things that we want to get accomplished,” Kuester said. “Whether it be shows on the high pick-and-rolls, his second and third energy efforts going after the boards, whether he got it or didn’t get it. I was very proud of him. I’ve seen that in him in practice.”
Kuester also said the Swede brings an energy level that is exactly what the Pistons need.
"His energy has been outstanding," Pistons coach John Kuester said. "Jonas has a motor that keeps on running and running at a high level," Kuester said. "He knows what a coach wants. That kind of energy is contagious and excites a coach."
How much playing time Jerebko might see once Prince recovers from his injury is anyone’s guess. Jerebko isn’t worrying.
“I’m having a lot fun and playing against the best in the world,” Jerebko said. “I’m still learning, but I am also having a lot of fun.”
Jonas Jerebko of the Detroit Pistons is the first Swede to play in the NBA. Bildbyran photo