Drummond’s Team USA experience will only speed his growth
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The Pistons would have been thrilled for the benefit Andre Drummond took from his USA Basketball summer experience even if it hadn’t been capped by actually making the final 12-man roster. Andre Drummond would not have been.
Making the team, representing his county and winning a gold medal meant the world to him, which is why he pulled Mike Krzyzewski aside early in Team USA’s week in Las Vegas last month and asked what he had to do to make the team.
I don’t think he’s accompanied the national team to Spain for the FIBA World Cup consciously thinking about how this will accelerate a learning curve that’s already on an exaggerated arc. He’s gone focused on continuing to convince Coach K and his staff that he’s a player they can count on to bend games in their team’s favor, to have fun playing basketball while helping his country win the gold.
But there is no doubt that soaking up the experience of playing with and against great players in a highly competitive environment is great for Andre Drummond, and by extension, great for the Pistons.
“No. 1, it’s a confidence boost for anybody to know that you’re considered at that level to be invited to Team USA,” Stan Van Gundy told me earlier this month as we talked at length about Drummond and the future. “Then to go out and play on a daily basis in practice and figure out that, yeah, I can compete with these people is another big confidence boost. But also, as you go along, you play against really good people and it’s not easy.
“So you find out, I can compete, I’m as good as these people, but if I want to be one of the best I’ve still got to get better. That’s perfect. When you gain the confidence that you can compete with anybody and also understand that to reach your goals you’ve still got to work and improve – perfect combination. And that’s what this whole experience is about for him.”
The exhilarating aspect for Van Gundy and the Pistons is that no one really knows where Drummond’s ceiling might be. He turned 21 two weeks ago. There was every sense that Team USA brass didn’t intend to keep him around for Spain over the past few weeks, Krzyzewski talking about his youth and how much he still had to learn while in the same breath talking about how important he was to USA Basketball’s future. They like to keep their most promising prospects in the pipeline and that was the prevailing wisdom – someday, but not today for Drummond’s role with the national team – in the weeks leading to Saturday’s announcement that Drummond had, indeed, made the cut.
But when they cracked the door for him by giving him spot minutes in Wednesday’s exhibition win over the Dominican Republic, Drummond flattened it and charged through with 12 points and five boards in 16 minutes. It was the only playing time he got in the three exhibitions before the team left for Spain over the weekend, but it was enough to captivate the imagination for ways he can change games and give Krzyzewski a rare and explosive weapon on a deep and versatile bench.
I caught a glimpse of Team USA’s practice last week in Chicago and was struck by the speed of the game. Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard made the pace of play electric. Drummond looked perfectly at home in a way he would not have two short summers ago.
We hear the terms “basketball instincts” or “basketball IQ” and tend to think it’s something you’re either born with or not, which is preposterous. You’re born with survival instincts, perhaps, but nobody walks onto a basketball court the first time and knows how to defend the increasingly sophisticated NBA pick and roll, for instance.
“Instincts, to me, come with experience,” Van Gundy said as we talked about Drummond’s evolution as a rim protector. “You look at a lot of the great point guards in the league and if you track it all the way back and figure out how much basketball they’ve played from being young kids, the things that look instinctual really come from hours and hours and hours of experience. They’ve seen things over and over and become expert at it. It’s the same defensively.”
Now Drummond is going to see it over and over, in Team USA practices for another three weeks, playing against Rose and Irving and Steph Curry and James Harden while defending Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. A fast learner is going to get an invaluable crash course against some of the world’s very best players under most meaningful circumstances.
Drummond has improved in dramatic leaps over his two NBA seasons. Nobody was sure he was ready to be in the rotation when his rookie season began, including his teammates. But he quickly showed things in games he hadn’t in practices. By the time his rookie season ended, he was arguably the Pistons best player. In the course of his second season, he became an increasingly dominant player, capped by a 26-point, 26-rebound performance at Chicago in the season’s final week.
He was going to come back a better player in his third season, one way or the other. He’ll be that much better, that much faster for the bonus of having made Team USA’s World Cup roster.