Transition Game

As Pistons shift gears, younger voices step up to leadership

Austin Daye, Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko are vital parts of the Pistons' future.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The surest first step to NBA contention is coming into possession of a great player who is also a great leader. The Pistons defied convention by winning the 2004 NBA title without the presence of an acknowledged superstar but with five players who took equal turns in the spotlight, the ultimate ensemble cast. They were led similarly: by a collective.

But Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace are the sole holdovers from the era that included five straight runs to the Eastern Conference finals, and just as the Pistons are getting younger so is their leadership core beginning to shift.

Jonas Jerebko, whose manic energy compels teammates match his passion, swears he won’t let anything less than 100 percent effort go unchallenged. Greg Monroe, who a year ago took everything in, says he won’t hesitate to voice his opinions this season. Even rookie Brandon Knight, less than two weeks removed from his teens, says leadership comes naturally to him.

But Ben Wallace points to two other Pistons, middle-agers by NBA standards, as co-leaders of the transition of power so far: Will Bynum and Ben Gordon.

“I think they’re the frontrunners right now,” Big Ben said Wednesday, “as far as stepping up and taking ownership and leading the team.”

Last year ran off the rails for the Pistons for many reasons, but one of them, assuredly, was the leadership vacuum that occurred when John Kuester lost touch with his veterans, Rip Hamilton most famously but also Wallace, Prince and the players closest to them in seniority. So if it takes a while this year for the Pistons to sort out who emerges at the center of leadership, well, that beats the alternative.

When Jerebko was asked what he learned from watching all 82 games last season from the sidelines, recovering from an Achilles tendon tear, he tellingly said, “a lot of not-to-dos.”

If Wallace has sensed enthusiasm from Bynum and Gordon, it could be that both are delighted with Lawrence Frank’s coaching demeanor and the more assertive offensive style he’s introducing. Even before training camp opened, though, Gordon had already determined he would assert himself more in the locker room.

“I had a lot of time to think over the summer,” he said. “I just wanted to be as much of a leader as I can be, whether vocally or with my play. That’s something I think that’s needed this year. Over the last two years, there was a kind of a lack of that role from our players, so I just want to step up and take more ownership in the team.”

Frank has a simple recipe for leadership: “You know whose team it is? Those who bring it every day. When your better players are bringing it every day, you’ve got a chance to be a pretty good team. If it’s your guys who are at the end of the bench who bring it every day, they’re doing their jobs, but you’re not going to be nearly as good as you should be.

“You need to have leadership, but at the end of the day there are three different types: those that do that don’t talk; those that talk and don’t do – and that’s really not leadership, that’s the other way; and then the really, really special ones, they both can do and talk.”

If Monroe and Knight become the players Pistons management is optimistic they will, Frank could have at least two players who fall into the third category. Monroe’s huge strides over the last 50 games of his rookie season stamp him as one of the game’s most promising young big men. Knight has impressed everyone inside the practice facility so far with his physical skills, mental tenacity and work ethic. Jerebko, by sheer force of his personality and run-through-a-wall exuberance, will be the perfect complement.

“I just learned to be more of a vocal leader,” Jerebko said, “which I’m going to try to be this year – which I will be this year. Hard work is going to pay off. I know we’ve got a bright future.”

The Pistons know they have many steps to take to get back to the type of success they achieved in the Goin’ to Work gang’s heyday. But if grooming leadership is a necessary first step, they at least appear to be starting the journey on the right path.