KCP’s rise, Meeks’ arrival turns shooting guard into Pistons strength
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
As deeply as both sides of the Pistons-Rodney Stuckey equation believed a fresh start was in order, it might have made for a few anxious moments for Stan Van Gundy when he looked at his shooting guard depth chart in the days before July 1 and saw only the name of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, more promise than production at that point.
A week later, how the picture had changed. Caldwell-Pope was the star of Orlando Summer League, averaging 24 points a game plus 7.4 rebounds and nearly two steals. Before that happened, though, Van Gundy won a fast free-agent commitment from Jodie Meeks, a player the Pistons believe they’re getting at just the right point of his career.
“I think we’ve improved it tremendously with both the addition of Jodie and the performance of KCP in Summer League,” Pistons general manager Jeff Bower told me this week. “One thing that’s been demonstrated in the league is that successful teams can withstand an injury over the short term and you do that by having quality depth and a number of players you have a high level of confidence in. I think that position has risen to the point that through hard work and competition it will be a plus for us.”
As a lottery pick with one year of NBA experience, the hope – bordering on expectation - was that Caldwell-Pope would perform as one of Summer League’s top players. He went a step further, though, consistently performing as the best player on the court – and carrying himself as though he fully believed it.
After a big opening game, Caldwell-Pope came back just as hungry and aggressive in game two. After a first-half struggle in the third game, he exploded to lead the Pistons to a comeback win that included the game-winning 3-pointer to beat the buzzer.
“The composure, the confidence he was able to demonstrate there are big signs of progress,” Bower said. “I also liked the fact that a couple of games he had rather average first-half performances but came back in the second half and really had big impacts. I think the important thing for him moving forward is to understand how many ways he can impact the game. It’s not all going to be based on scoring the ball or shooting the ball. His feet are extremely quick and his body balance and ability to get into passing lanes are all weapons that, if demonstrated consistently, can really help build a strong defensive unit.”
Bower says he learned something about Caldwell-Pope even before Summer League play opened with the mentality he took into the seven practices Van Gundy held under assistant coach Bob Beyer. It was reinforced for him when Caldwell-Pope came back from a sprained ankle suffered in the first half of the third Summer League game rather than begging off.
“The growth in KCP’s game from last year to the summer, those are things you hope to see going into it,” he said. “You’re happy he was able to do that over the course of the entire Summer League and, frankly, that’s a talent level that is inside of him that just needs to be brought out. He’s a tremendously gifted individual, both athletically and skill wise. The decision making he showed throughout the league is probably one of the biggest reasons for his improved efficiency and play. He didn’t try to do too much too often, but he did look to be aggressive and look to take advantage of opportunities when they were there.
“Another thing he showed us, he practiced very hard leading up to the start of games. He had some bumps and nicks and bruises that he took during the games and it would’ve been real easy for him to shut it down for the rest of the Summer League, but that wasn’t his response. It’s not, ‘It’s only Summer League,’ but rather it was, ‘This is a chance to get better.’ He came back and had as strong a second half as he might have had all Summer League. To me, that was a sign of maturity and of the importance of team.”
When Caldwell-Pope was at his best as a rookie, he was active early in games – getting his hands on loose balls, sprinting ahead of the field for an easy transition basket or two, and helping out on the boards where his size, quickness and athleticism give him a shot to be one of the best from a backcourt position. If the confidence Caldwell-Pope showed in Summer League spills over into the regular season, and if Meeks gives the Pistons the boost they fully expect – especially with his perimeter shooting – Van Gundy might even consider playing both together in spurts.
“I think as creative as Stan is with his lineups and his willingness to adjust to whatever the situation calls for, I think that’s a scenario that could be thrown out there and it could be effective some nights against certain types of lineups,” Bower said.
I’ll have more from Bower on Monday on Jodie Meeks and why the Pistons targeted him early in free agency.