With a defined role, Maxiell produces consistent results
Together, they spanned the gamut of NBA experiences. They’d been high lottery picks or not drafted at all. They’d been traded, cut, injured, hailed and pilloried. Mostly, they’d survived and ultimately all of them had thrived. It was about as rich a learning environment as a young player hoping to establish himself could have hoped to find.
Maxiell has always struck his various Pistons coaches – Flip Saunders, Michael Curry and John Kuester – as a quick study and a hard worker. His teammates have universally regarded him as trustworthy, there when you need him. His production has ebbed and flowed, which explains why his role has fluctuated – sometimes a starter, sometimes out of the rotation. Under Lawrence Frank – at least through nine games – he’s found a consistency of role that suits him as the first big man off the bench.
“He’s really played well,” Frank said before Monday’s loss to Chicago. “It’s good to see. It’s that consistency and that’s what we’re going to need. As a teammate, as a coaching staff, it’s what can you get from each guy every night, regardless of what it is. It may not be great stuff, but by and large, you know what you’re going to get. Consistency and reliability are big. You can’t make judgments after five, seven or 10 games, but over the course of a significant stretch, you figure out what you’re going to get from each guy and that’s valuable information when you put parts together.”
Maxiell, after not having much to show for his first few performances of the season, has picked it up over his last seven games. In the five games before the Chicago loss, Maxiell had averaged eight points and four rebounds in about 17 minutes a game. Monday was one of those nights, though. After shooting 60 percent in his previous five games, Maxiell couldn’t buy one against the Bulls, shooting 1 of 12. He even rattled what would have been a thunderous put-back dunk off the back rim.
Maxiell thrives on physical contact, and all the off-season conditioning he did was no substitute for the acclimation process of playing five-on-five, full-court basketball. The truncated preseason meant that process extended into the regular season for him.
“That’s what it’s about – I had to get that contact out of the way,” he said. “The preseason was short. We had to get our wind and our legs underneath us. You can do all the playing you want in the off-season and getting prepared for a short training camp, but nothing compares to that.”
Maxiell at his best contributes a handful of impact plays – a blocked shot, the put-back dunk he didn’t finish against Chicago, a steal. He’s been doing that more frequently of late, but – until the 1 of 12, at least – he’s also been knocking down the mid-range jump shot that seems to give the rest of his game a boost. It was one of his early Pistons mentors who convinced him honing that jumper would be his ticket to a greater role, because the Maxiell the Pistons drafted 26th out of Cincinnati lived around the rim.
“It has to be consistent,” he said. “You can’t dunk every ball. Dice told me, ‘You can’t dunk everything,” so I worked on my jump shot this summer, trying to be consistent.”
That’s what Frank wants from everyone: consistency. It’s a tough thing for all but the elite and especially difficult for bench players never sure when or how they’ll be used. Frank gets that part of it, which is why he lets players know on a game-to-game basis how he anticipates using them.
“It’s very, very important,” he said. “You try to tell them exactly what their role is. When they’re getting subbed, what the deal is and even before the game, you may say, there may be a matchup where we want to flip Jonas (Jerebko) and Max. A team is playing smaller, so you tell the group, ‘Jonas, we’re going to sub you out earlier; Max, you’re going in earlier.’ Just so you can be mentally prepared.”
Maxiell appreciates the candor.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Mentally, (I’m) able to come off the bench and bring energy and also rebound.”
The front office had hoped to land another big man in the frenzied crush of free agency that came together out of the lockout, but nothing materialized. That gave Maxiell a greater shot at a claim to playing time. So far, he’s given Lawrence Frank confidence that he knows what he’ll get when he goes to the bench for his first frontcourt substitution.