Flash Forward

A Jerebko-Monroe-Daye frontcourt promises a tantalizing Pistons future

Austin Daye, Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko are vital parts of the Pistons' future.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Will Bynum was the second-oldest among the nine Pistons available to John Kuester last week when they scored a season-high 120 points and rallied from seven back in the fourth quarter to beat Utah. When somebody asked if Pistons fans had just gotten a peek at the future, Bynum said, “Better yet, maybe the future is now.”

Except it won’t be until Jonas Jerebko is back, and while his return inches closer every day, it’s still not certain it will happen in the less than six weeks that remains of this season. With the Pistons fading from playoff contention, they’ll do nothing to rush the process.

But it doesn’t stop John Kuester from wondering what could have been.

“This team sorely missed the intangibles that Jonas brings,” he said after Friday’s practice, when the gym had cleared except for Jerebko working with player development coach Steve Hetzel. “He was starting to become vocal as a leader and unfortunately he got hurt. But his heart is always in the right place. We miss his energy and enthusiasm for the game, night in and night out.”

Hetzel said Arnie Kander has limited the type of work he can do with Jerebko – no explosive jumping yet as Jerebko works to gradually rebuild the calf muscle that atrophied while his partially torn right Achilles tendon healed – but Hetzel loves working with him because of his enthusiasm for every part of the process.

Whether Jerebko gets to play in any of the season’s final 19 games or not, the worst-case scenario for the Pistons isn’t all that bad: Next season will start with a fully healthy Jerebko, who very well could be lining up next to Greg Monroe and Austin Daye in a rangy frontcourt that would give the Pistons plenty of offensive flexibility.

“No question,” Kuester responded when I asked him if he could envision a day in the near future when the fruits of the 2009 and ’10 draft would comprise the Pistons’ starting frontcourt. “That group, it will be very exciting to see how they develop.”

Monroe has averaged about 16 points and 12 rebounds a game since the All-Star break and has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of his rookie season. But the Pistons expect the off-season to do wonders for Monroe, particularly for the consistency of his mid-range jump shot and the development of a signature low-post move or two.

Hetzel and the coaching staff have had extremely limited opportunity to work with Monroe before and after practices and before games simply because of the workload he shoulders during games. No one expected him to be playing anywhere near the 34 minutes per game he’s averaged over the past 29 games, during which time he’s averaging about 12 points and nine rebounds. Already adjusting to the extended season, Monroe simply wouldn’t withstand the additional drill work without risking his body breaking down.

The savvy Monroe has displayed for exploiting gaps in opposition defenses, combined with Jerebko’s relentless motor, should provide the Pistons with many more scoring chances around the basket next season. Throw in the shooting range that Austin Daye and Charlie Villaneuva can provide from either forward spot and the Pistons should be a more diverse offensive team in the future.

Ben Gordon admitted Friday he didn’t project the level of contributions Monroe has provided based on what he saw from him intitially.

“I knew he was capable, but training camp he just wasn’t there yet,” Gordon said. “He wasn’t comfortable with the speed of the game yet, how athletic the other bigs were. As the season has progressed, he’s really learned how to position himself under the hoop, finish around the rim without having to jump over everybody and be the most athletic guy on the floor. I probably wouldn’t have thought back then he would be doing those kinds of numbers today – I’m really proud of him.

Gordon said it was a more extreme leap than he saw in Chicago from another young big man, Joakim Noah, and “I’m hoping we can expect to see that from (Monroe) for years to come. He’s been working really hard and it’s been paying off for him.”

As for next year, Gordon said, “He just needs to continue to get better in the post. Maybe adding a couple of post moves. Right now, he’s scoring a lot from rebounding and he has a great knack for being in the right place at the right time. Next year, if he adds a couple of moves in the post, that will significantly improve his play, and then maybe adding a nice mid-range jumper that’s a little bit consistent. I think those are two things you will see him work on this summer.”

Daye is coming off a career-high 22 points against Minnesota and has shown he can play both forward spots this year. It’s a measure of how far Daye has come since his rookie year that the talk that dominated any conversation of Daye a year ago – the overwhelming need to gain bulk and strength – has largely been absent this season.

It’s not that Daye doesn’t still need to build strength – he does – but that he’s proven he can contribute in a number of different ways while the process is ongoing.

“He’s got to get stronger, he knows,” Kuester said. “He’s made a lot of gains. He uses his length a lot better and that’s important for his growth as a basketball player. There are areas he needs to improve – guarding the dribble and staying aggressive. But I’m very pleased with his effort.”

In the thick of a season filled with frustration over unmet expectations, the idea of a Jerebko-Monroe-Daye frontcourt gives the Pistons ample reason to believe a better fate awaits them.

  • One more young Piston has been flying well below the radar this season: 2010 second-rounder Terrico White. White told me Friday that he feels he’s “real close” to returning, but that he still experiences some pain in the foot he broke in the preseason opener at Miami. His conditioning remains the biggest issue, he said, as he was unable to train at a high level for the duration of his recovery. He needs to rebuild muscle strength in both the upper and lower leg. White said he hopes to be playing in the D-League “in a couple of weeks.”