Off and Running
The story of the preseason-opening 91-87 loss to Cleveland in Pistons red, white and blue
When the dust settles on whatever becomes of the 2011-12 Pistons season, the preseason opener will be remembered less as the return of NBA basketball from a lockout that cost 16 games than for The Palace debut of Brandon Knight.
Greg Monroe proved a year ago how foolhardy it is to write off a rookie who struggles out of the chute, and the converse holds, as well. Nobody should expect Knight to carry the Pistons to the playoffs on his slight shoulders, necessarily, but the things he showed off Friday night at least suggest that if he doesn’t become an NBA impact player at some point, something went terribly wrong.
In a game meandering around the way you would expect a preseason opener to meander – never mind one held just a week after training camps opened – Knight brought energy and order to the equation with a handful of electrifying plays in a ragged 91-87 loss to Cleveland replete with 91 free throws and 42 turnovers.
“He sees the court,” last year’s dynamite rookie, Monroe, said after he racked up another double-double with 12 points and 13 boards in 27 foul-plagued minutes. “He has exceptional vision. He made a lot of big plays for us. He’s only going to get better. He definitely, definitely came in and made some big plays.”
Among Knight’s eye-openers were a deep 3-pointer for his first NBA points, a one-handed scoop pass from half-court to a streaking Austin Daye that led to two points, a knifing steal in front of No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving punctuated by a 360-spin and layup over Irving, and repeated splitting of double teams that more than once saw Knight kick it out to an open 3-point shooter.
“He played with great energy, made some nice plays on the pick and roll,” Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said. “Everybody can see he’s going to be a very, very good player. I think the guy on the other side showed he’s a pretty good player, too. That’s the great thing about this league – every year it turns out great young players. It’s a good first taste. I thought Brandon did a nice job in his first performance.”
Knight’s competitive edge was on display as clearly as his special gifts. He hit the floor a few times and stuck his nose into the fray for loose balls, going toe to toe with Irving, who scored 21 points on 4 of 14 shooting by getting to the foul line 15 times. Knight finished with nine points to go with four assists, but his impact on the game dwarfed those numbers.
“I thought I did pretty well,” he said, “but there’s always room for improvement. You can always get better. I’m going to watch tape and see the errors that I can improve on.”
Knight doesn’t just give lip service to putting in the work to improve, either. Frank said he heard a basketball bouncing at 11:30 Thursday night at the practice facility. When he looked out his window, there was Knight, still at it. Just as Frank’s 16-hour days put him in position to be prepared for any eventuality during the course of a game, Knight’s endless hours in the gym give him a confidence that belies his years in his ability to compete despite being only a year removed from high school.
“I felt confident in myself and knew I could play at this level,” he said. “I’m happy I was able to make some plays to show that I belonged here, but I didn’t feel that was a question. I myself knew that. That’s what matters.”
Austin Daye scored 18 points off the bench to lead the Pistons. Ben Gordon recovered from an ice-cold start to finish with 17, but he and Charlie Villaneuva – whose scoring will be needed this year without Rip Hamilton’s steady hand in the lineup – combined to shoot just 7 of 26.
“This is the first litmus test,” Frank said. “Some of the things that stand out are avoiding needless fouls – they made more free throws than we attempted – some of our turnovers that led to their easy baskets, weakside defensively not shrinking the floor. This just shows you where we’re at. … We’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
They’ll get back to that Saturday afternoon with another practice. Sometime well after sundown, Lawrence Frank probably will have to kick Brandon Knight out of the gym again.