Max-imum effort

Pistons saw Big Ben’s heart while scouting Maxiell

Maxiell impressed a veteran team that doesn’t impress easily with his everyday competitiveness last season.
D. Lippitt/Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Every college basketball season produces a few dozen players who put up big numbers despite less than ideal size for their position. Maybe one or two among them has the goods to translate that production to the NBA.

The Pistons bet the 26th pick of the 2005 NBA draft that Jason Maxiell would be among that select minority. And they’ve seen nothing from Maxiell through his first full season, or the offseason that followed – or, especially, the current preseason – to make them think they miscalculated.

So how do you go about identifying the one or two from among the few dozen every season who stick?

“The heart,” Joe Dumars answers in a flash. “We kind of stumbled into the trademark for that with Ben Wallace. Jason comes with a tremendous amount of heart with how hard he plays. There are a lot of undersized guys in college basketball, but what kind of energy and heart does that guy play with? He plays with a ferociousness. He’s always coming. That was the difference for us. That’s what we liked about him.”

Maxiell, listed at 6-foot-7, was an instant impact player at tradition-rich Cincinnati after a decorated high school career in Dallas, leading the team in scoring and rebounding for two seasons and in blocked shots for three. Bob Huggins wasn’t without controversy during his days with the Bearcats, but NBA scouts always knew the players he churned out already would have had their feet held to the fire.

“We looked at Max and said here was a guy who is in the Ben Wallace mode – high energy, tough, undersized,” Pistons vice president John Hammond said. “Ben was an undersized center; Max is an undersized power forward. But we loved his toughness. During the draft (evaluation period), we got to know him, saw what kind of person he was, saw he was our kind of man, also.”

Maxiell impressed a veteran team that doesn’t impress easily with his everyday competitiveness last season, battling Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Dale Davis throughout the season in practices and contributing when called upon during games.

He finished the season playing in 26 games, averaging 2.3 points and a rebound per outing. Though he’s played well in training camp and has opened eyes with three straight notable efforts to start the preseason – Maxiell leads the Pistons in scoring at 14.3 points a game, averaging 23 minutes – he’s behind Rasheed Wallace and McDyess at power forward. As of today, Flip Saunders is leaning toward a nine-man rotation – and Jason Maxiell checks in at No. 10.

In a bid to move up the pecking order, he came back a changed man. This year, he’s even more undersized – and that’s a good thing.

As with most rookies, his eyes were opened to the NBA last season. Maxiell has a unique, barrel-chested build – a big part of the reason he can do so much damage around the rim – but he came back to camp with a noticeably different body type this season after putting himself on a diet over the summer. Listed at 260 pounds a year ago, Maxiell checked in at 252 when camp opened – but even those numbers don’t tell the story.

“I was more concerned about body-fat percentage than weight,” he said. “I put myself on a green diet. Everything I ate was green – no red meat, all chicken and poultry and green vegetables. I did it before in college and had to do it again to come in toned and ready to play.”

Maxiell said that when last season ended, his body fat registered at 7 percent of his weight. He’s now around 4.5 percent. He started the summer by concentrating on running and eating right, then introduced more weight-lifting into his regimen as the summer progressed – first in Las Vegas during the Pistons’ summer league, then back home in Dallas for a few weeks, and finally back in Michigan.

Now the Pistons want to see Maxiell similarly reshape two areas of his game: his foul shooting – the one area where they don’t want him to follow Ben Wallace’s career path – and his offensive arsenal.

“What we said about Max when we drafted him was that he could make the 15-foot face-up jump shot and he can make free throws,” Hammond said. “What was discouraging about this summer was he was 24 of 54 from the free-throw line in Las Vegas. He shot 70 percent as a senior. If he had never been able to make free throws, OK.’’

“When he misses, then he starts trying to adjust,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. “He shouldn’t adjust. Just keep on shooting the same way, keep that mental edge. He’s shooting 200-plus a day, so he’s working on it. The way he plays, he’s going to get fouled. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you’re not going to get anything out of that.”

The Pistons knew that Maxiell’s style of play would result in him getting sent to the free-throw line often, but even they probably didn’t envision what they’ve gotten from him so far in the preseason. Through three games, Maxiell is averaging an astounding 10.7 free-throw attempts a game. His 59 percent accuracy isn’t where they’d like it to be, but it’s at least trending in the right direction.

“The other thing we talked to him about this summer was a go-to move,” Hammond said. “Right now his go-to move is get it on the right block, fake one way, spin to the baseline and shoot a fadeaway. If that doesn’t go in the basket, it’s a no-good move. He’s never going to get fouled on it and he’s never going to get the offensive rebound.”

So far, so good on that count. Maxiell has practically abandoned the fadeaway jumper and concentrated instead of bulling his way inside, where his physical assets – brute strength, surprising quickness and nimble footwork – make him a handful.

The Pistons can live with the shaky foul shooting and an erratic 15-footer for now, because Maxiell’s precious minutes won’t be doled out for his scoring ability just yet.

“He doesn’t have to come in the game and score,” Hammond said. “He’s going to have to do all of those other things. But at some point, in order to stay on the floor, he’s going to have to hit that jump shot and make his free throws.”

“His niche in the NBA is going to have to be a little similar to what Ben Wallace’s situation was,” said Pistons scouting director George David. “He’s going to have to affect all the things that most people don’t want to do. Jason is going to be a guy who, when a guy thinks he has a layup, Maxiell is going to come from the weak side to block his shot. When three people go up for the rebound, he should be the one coming away with it. He’s going to be the guy around the basket, playing above the rim and dunking.

“He worked a lot this summer on having a move and a countermove offensively, and all of that stuff is going to help him. But at the end of the day, his niche is going to be a tough guy who makes hustle plays. What’s going to benefit him is that he’s better, skill-wise, than most people who have that as their niche.”

David saw a couple of attributes while scouting Maxiell at Cincinnati that made him believe he had an NBA future. One was the toughness that Dumars and Hammond saw. The other was his disproportionately large wing span – 7 feet 2 inches.

“We have two guys who have that in Tayshaun and him,” David said. “It creates a ton of problems. Now you’re no longer 6-7, you’re 6-8, 6-9. With his wing span, he never looked undersized. He was still able to block shots and play bigger than he was.

“A lot of undersized players maybe have a big game rebounding one night, or have 19 points one night and three the next, whatever their skill is. The ones who stick out – and they still have deficiencies because of their size – but there’s usually one skill that stands out across the board every single night. With Maxiell, he was always the toughest player on the floor.”

When Hammond looks at prospects, his mind does a database search on current NBA players to find one who compares.

“I told Joe (Dumars) last year that if (Denver’s Eduardo) Najera can be a rotation guy, Max can be a rotation guy. Max’s body is more live than Najera’s. Najera has a little more savvy to his game on the offensive end, but both of them have those big old giant hearts.”

A little Ben Wallace, a little Eduardo Najera … anyone else come to mind? Maxiell offers an intriguing comparison when asked how a scouting report on himself might read.

“It would say how quick I am and, maybe, how short I am,” he said, “but also that I resemble Charles Barkley down low with the quickness and how I’m able to jump and get off the floor at 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan.”

He might not have Barkley’s perimeter skills or ballhandling acumen, but Maxiell isn’t too far off the mark in the comparison when it comes to his explosion off the floor and uncanny ability to create space for scoring opportunities around the rim. Stuck behind Wallace and McDyess, Maxiell will have to fight for every minute – and hit enough jump shots and bury enough free throws to stay on the court when he gets there.

But as the Pistons saw when they decided Maxiell was the one or two undersized college players among the few dozen who put up big numbers every year with the stuff to translate that production to the NBA, he’s got the heart for the fight.