Opportunity Knocks

Mature Macklin could defy draft status as Pistons frontcourt piece

Depending on how free agency shakes out, Vernon Macklin could crack the Pistons' rotation earlier than expected.
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The Pistons won’t have Kyle Singler this year and Brandon Knight faces a crowded backcourt fight for minutes. So as unlikely as it seemed on draft night, it’s possible that Vernon Macklin, the 52nd pick last June, could be the Pistons rookie with the clearest path to a spot in the rotation.

Much remains uncertain, of course, with training camp’s scheduled Friday start looming. Free agency will have a major effect on all 30 rosters. The Pistons have two unrestricted free agents, Tayshaun Prince and Chris Wilcox, while Rodney Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko are restricted.

But if Wilcox signs elsewhere and the Pistons don’t make a comparable move to bolster their frontcourt in free agency, then the pool of big men starts with Greg Monroe, Charlie Villanueva and Jason Maxiell. Ben Wallace would make it four if, as seems more likely than not, he returns to fulfill the two-year contract he signed after the 2009-10 season. The Pistons could get minutes at power forward from Jerebko, should they re-sign him, and even from Daye.

Macklin, though, projects as a genuine rim protector, a skill set that could get him consideration for a role under a new coach, Lawrence Frank, who has made clear his intention to improve the Pistons defensively. That was Macklin’s hope over a long off-season, at least, which is why he both resisted any overtures to play internationally and based his training in Los Angeles for the proximity it afforded him to other NBA players and the lessons they could impart.

Macklin worked under a trainer and his frequent workout partners included Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Matt Barnes, Gary Forbes and Ron Artest.

“It was a great experience for me playing with a lot of guys already in the league,” Macklin said after arriving in Detroit this week to take advantage of the availability of both the Pistons’ practice facility and their conditioning staff, led by Arnie Kander. “We did a lot of pickup, conditioning work and shooting. I’m definitely a better player. I learned a lot and I got to sit back and watch a lot of veterans, learn from a lot of those guys.”

As Macklin spoke, Wallace worked out nearby. If there’s a role model for Macklin to emulate, that’s the guy. Macklin grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and knows well of Wallace from his college roots at Virginia Union.

“I followed your Twitter accounts,” Macklin told reporters, “and saw he was working out the other day and when I got to the weight room I saw him. I was like, ‘That’s Ben Wallace right there.’ It’s a great feeling. He played at Virginia Union – that’s real close to me – and a lot of people in my family, a lot of people back home, really idolize Ben Wallace.”

Macklin was a highly recruited player, a McDonald’s All-American, who spent two years at Georgetown. In addition to feeling ill-suited to Georgetown’s Princeton offense, which places a premium on big men who can step away from the basket, Macklin got buried on the depth chart behind Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert up front, leaving after his sophomore season just as another elite recruit – Greg Monroe, who was hosted on his recruiting visit by Green and Macklin – was about to arrive. He sat out a season as a transfer, then finished up with two more years at Florida.

That ups and downs and five years spent in big-time college programs leave Macklin more mature – physically and emotionally – than the typical rookie. Though not an especially polished or multiskilled offensive player, Macklin flashed the ability to score around the basket late in Florida’s 2010-11 season, scoring 25 points in 24 minutes when Florida lost narrowly to Butler with a Final Four berth on the line. He continued to hone those offensive skills with his off-season work, he said.

“The lockout was good and bad for me,” he said. “Bad, obviously, financially wise with my family and also I want to get out there and play with these guys. But good for me to just go in the gym and work on my game, work on shooting and other things that I wasn’t good at coming out of college. I used it as a learning experience.”