Becoming a Man

Macklin’s late surge, eye-opening workout sold him to Pistons

Depending on how free agency shakes out, Vernon Macklin could crack the Pistons' rotation earlier than expected.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport
Brandon Knight was the point guard who followed Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall through the John Calipari pipeline and led Kentucky to the Final Four as a freshman. Kyle Singler spent four years at one of college basketball’s Cadillac programs, Duke, and it seemed like all of his 148 career games were on national television.

Pretty safe to say Pistons fans had some familiarity with their top two picks in the 2012 draft.

Vernon Macklin? That’s another story. For someone who spent two years apiece at two other high-profile college programs – first Georgetown, then Florida – Macklin comes to the Pistons as something of a blank page.

But NBA scouts have been aware of him for a long time. Macklin was a McDonald’s All-American when he came out of high school in Portsmouth, Va. The other big men on Macklin’s East squad in 2006: Greg Oden, Brandan Wright and Thaddeus Young – all of whom became lottery picks in the 2007 NBA draft. That’s the stratosphere Macklin once inhabited. On the West squad were such players as Kevin Durant and the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin.

Rivals.com ranked Macklin the No. 12 player in the country and slotted Georgetown’s recruiting class – led by Macklin and the player who became one of his best friends, future Piston DaJuan Summers – 10th.

On the basis of Macklin’s recruiting profile, it’s amazing the Pistons got him with the 52nd pick last week. Based on the fact Macklin wasn’t one of the 54 players invited to the Chicago draft combine – which excluded all of the prominent international players – it’s just as surprising that he was drafted at all, perhaps.

So what are the Pistons getting in Macklin?

If they’re getting the one who played like a McDonald’s All-American down the stretch for Florida last season, that’s somebody with a chance to not only stick on an NBA roster but perhaps the rare late second-rounder who’ll actually become a contributor.

Certainly, that’s what the Pistons expect is within Macklin’s reach after seeing the way he competed last week when he was part of a six-man group of big men to work out. All of them were drafted, the other five ranging from Tristan Thompson (No. 4) to Bismack Biyombo (7), Markieff Morris (13), Jordan Williams (36) and Keith Benson (48).

“The biggest thing is, he didn’t look out of place,” Pistons vice president Scott Perry said. “He was physical, strong, could hold his position in the low post defensively, long arms and he competed. That’s what you want to see.”

Macklin left Georgetown after two seasons, his playing time limited to about 10 minutes a game with a glut of talent ahead of him in the Hoyas’ frontcourt and a highly touted freshman named Greg Monroe – Macklin and Summers were Monroe’s hosts when he took his official visit in the fall of 2007 – about to arrive.

When Macklin didn’t find playing time and immediate success in college, it gutted his confidence, the Pistons believe. That started coming back to him as a Florida senior, aided by a talk he had last fall with Gators coach Billy Donovan.

“He said, ‘Look, Vernon, your time is running out. You don’t realize how short this is. This is your fifth year in college and it seems like just yesterday you were a freshman,’ ” Macklin recalls. “He just told me I’ve got to play hard. Be a man – that was his term. Be a man and just play hard. That’s what he wanted me to do and that’s what I did at the end of the season – become a man.”

Macklin scored 25 points despite being limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble in his final college game, an overtime loss to Butler in a regional final. It was at least a hint that Macklin might yet have the stuff to again be talked about in the same sentence with the Lopez twins or the others he joined in that McDonald’s All-American game.

Then he followed up with a strong performance at the Portsmouth Invitational, the long-established proving ground for NBA draft hopefuls held annually in his hometown. It was there that Macklin sat down with Pistons personnel director George David.

“He used this terminology,” Macklin recalled. “He said, ‘You’ve got two different players in the NBA. Starters, who play hard every single possession – that’s why they’re starters. And the backups, who play hard one possession and take a possession off – that’s why those guys are backups.’ He asked me which kind of guy am I going to be?

“He said, ‘Are you going to be Joakin Noah or his backup?’ After my first game at PIT, he texted me and said, ‘You were Joakim Noah today.’ And he said the same thing at the end of the workout.”

Big guys taken late in the draft usually stand out in one area or another – they can shoot but offer little as a rebounder or defender, perhaps, or they rebound but have poor ball skills. Macklin wasn’t a prolific rebounder – he averaged 5.5 a game in his two seasons at Florida in a perimeter-oriented offense – but he was stout defensively and developed a solid offensive game, including a go-to hook and the ability to use his left hand to finish, in averaging 11.6 points as a senior.

“He was a tremendously highly recruited high school player with big-time athleticism,” David said. “He can really play above the rim. We pegged him in our scouting reports. The season just ran out on him. He was playing so well late. He ran out of games.”

The Pistons brought him in for the workout very specifically to go against the three big men they were considering with the No. 8 pick (Thompson, Biyombo, Morris) plus the two they considered with the No. 33 pick (Benson, Williams) to see if Macklin would be a viable option at 52 if they were still in the market for a big man.

It was the last of Macklin’s 11 workouts and, he says, the best run.

“It was a tough grind, but I’m glad I came here,” he said. “I came and played hard on every possession. This was, by far, the best workout I’ve seen. It was run great. Everything was a half-court setting. Bumping, physical – some teams have you go full court. That’s tiring, too, but the banging and playing hard – in this little space right here – it was tough. It was great, man. I loved it.

“George said he watched me during the season and watched me at PIT and when I came here, the way I played, he said it was what they thought I could do. Every rebound coming off the glass, I would go for it. Play physical in the post and play with a lot of energy. He said if I can do that on every possession, I could be a Piston.”

Monroe is optimistic that Macklin will be able to step in and help the Pistons as soon as next season.

“He’s an effective scorer in the low post, he’s tough, he’s physical,” Monroe said. “He’s another big guy who protects the rim. Those things, with him just getting better, is going to help us out a lot.”

“I see myself being a low-post guy, scoring the ball around the low post, just a dirty work guy,” said Macklin, who measured at 6-foot-10 at Portsmouth with a 7-foot-1 wing span. “I want to come in here and make sure there’s no letup when Greg comes out of the game or Ben (Wallce) comes out. I just want to make sure the intensity level stays the same or goes even higher. I’m going to come in here and play hard on every possession – that’s what I did to get here and I’m going to keep doing the same thing.

“These guys, I love being around these guys. They’re real people and they want you to play hard. I love it.”