Professor Wallace’s Pupil

Pistons rookie Macklin hopes to follow in Big Ben’s footsteps

Pistons rookie Vernon Macklin hopes to follow in Big Ben's footsteps.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
When training camp opened, Joe Dumars hoped he’d be able to find a veteran big man good enough to plug into the rotation from what began as a meager list of worthy free agents and dwindled quickly while he worked to wrap up negotiations with Rodney Stuckey. When journeyman Kwame Brown got a $7 million payday from Golden State, the market was set.

So there’s an opening for someone to grab minutes in a frontcourt anchored by Greg Monroe and filled out by Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva – in all likelihood, the contenders to start at power forward – plus Jason Maxiell and Ben Wallace.

A rookie picked late in the second round isn’t the most likely place to find a frontcourt solution, but Vernon Macklin hopes to defy the odds and earn the trust of Lawrence Frank. He took a good first step in Tuesday’s preseason finale after a 35-second cameo in the opener four nights earlier.

“I thought he really performed well,” Frank said after Macklin, who came on for the final 1:29 of the third quarter and played the first 7:51 of the fourth, grabbed five rebounds and scored on a put-back. The Pistons went from five points behind to tied while Macklin was on the court. “He really impacted the game in a short amount of time. His rebounding, his energy, his presence around the paint – I thought he was very, very productive around that small sample size.”

“It felt great,” Macklin said. “I’m glad coach was able to put me in and trust me and have my back on that, also my teammates. I had no butterflies. It’s just something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I wanted to not go out on the court and have butterflies. They needed me out there. I just wanted to go out there and play basketball like I do every day in practice. It felt great going in there and playing hard and rebounding and getting defensive stops.”

Macklin is older than the typical rookie, 25. He spent a year in prep school after graduating high school in Portsmouth, Va., and then five years in college, the first two at Georgetown and the last two at Florida sandwiched around a season he sat out due to the NCAA’s transfer rule. At 6-foot-10 and solidly built, if not thick at 227 pounds, Macklin brings athleticism to a frontcourt that could use some.

It appears Macklin has come in for his share of Frank’s coaching during practices, too. “We always keep Vernon on his toes,” he smiled. “He’s a good kid and he works at it, so you’re always happy to see guys like that get a little sugar for their hard work.”

“Some segments I’ll be on the sidelines and Coach makes sure I’m into the game mentally because he asks me a lot of questions,” Macklin said. “ ‘Vernon, what’s this for? Vernon, why do you do this?’ He said the other day, ‘When I’m done with you, you’ll be the smartest guy on the team.’ He asks me a lot of questions out of nowhere. I’m just learning. I want to keep on learning.”

Young big guys who ace the prerequisites – a thirst for learning and an eagerness to embrace hard work – get to attend the Ben Wallace Graduate School of Hard Knocks. Macklin sits in the front row.

“I can really say, out of everybody, he really talks to me a lot and he definitely has my back,” Macklin said. “I said to him one day, ‘I want to be like you, Big Dog.’ He said, ‘No, be like I used to be.’ This guy is really serious about this and he still loves the game, no matter how long he’s been in the league. If he sees a young guy working hard, he definitely pulls for you 110 percent.”

Macklin also picks the brains of other big men, like Jason Maxiell and Greg Monroe. Macklin and Monroe were almost teammates at Georgetown – Macklin hosted Monroe on his recruiting visit in the fall of 2007 – but by the time Monroe arrived as a freshman in 2008, Macklin had left.

“He’s a cool guy,” Macklin said. “When he was in D.C. this summer, we talked. I hang out with him sometimes after practice. On the court, he tells me to slow down on my pick and roll, helps me pick my spots on the floor. He just wants to win and play hard.”

Macklin made it clear to Joe Dumars that’s what he was all about, too, after the Pistons drafted him last June.

“I said, ‘I want to come here and just play hard, rebound, play defense and run the floor.’ I’m not looking to be that guy they get the ball into and make moves like Charlie (Villanueva) and those guys. I just want to go out there and do the dirty work and play hard.”

There’s room for one of those in every team’s rotation. Be the best in class at it and you turn into Ben Wallace. It’s a long way from the 52nd pick to that level, but Macklin can take comfort in this: Big Ben wasn’t drafted at all, and his career turned out OK.