The Right Direction

Wilkins sees parallels to Pistons from early days of OKC’s rebuilding

Damien Wilkins has witnessed firsthand the beginning stages of a rebuilding team--and thinks the Pistons are on the right track.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
The Pistons offered Damien Wilkins nothing but the promise to compete for a roster spot once the lockout ended, an offer he could have gotten from virtually any team in the league. He spent the first five years of his NBA career with the Seattle franchise that relocated to Oklahoma City, enduring a radical rebuilding project in the middle of his time there. The Pistons saw firsthand the dividends those years paid out on Monday night when the Thunder rolled to a 20-point win.

So Wilkins is qualified to speak of spotting signs of a turnaround before any compelling evidence is obvious to most.

“It’s headed in the right direction,” he said after Tuesday’s practice, only the second the Pistons have been able to squeeze in since Jan. 5 given the five back-to-back sets they’ve played since then. “It starts with coach Frank. He does a great job. I’ve never really played for a coach that knows every single play the other team runs and that’s a testament to his hard work, a testament to his film study. He gets it. He understands what it takes to be successful. He certainly has us prepared. It’s just a matter of going out and executing our schemes at both ends of the floor.”

Wilkins had a comfort level with the Pistons in part due to his relationship with Scott Perry, who spent a year with the team in its final season in Seattle as Sam Presti’s assistant general manager.

“I liked the opportunity here,” he said. “I liked the direction that I thought it was going with coach Frank at the helm. I know Scott Perry and knowing Joe (Dumars), he’s a winner. Joe’s always won. I knew he wanted to get this ship right and that was something that attracted me. I wanted to be a part of this building process. I wanted to be part of changing the culture here. So far I’ve come in and tried to do just that.

“It’s a process. It just takes diligent work. That’s the only thing that’s going to change it – and guys buying in, believing in the organization. That’s what’s going to help us move forward successfully.”

Losing is tough, but it doesn’t have to be toxic. Wilkins experienced a nightmarish 3-29 start in 2008-09 – when Kevin Durant was in his second season and Russell Westbrook a rookie – yet saw the team pull together and its two burgeoning stars refuse to accept losing.

“It drove everybody crazy,” he said, “but it didn’t stop us from working hard. It didn’t stop our enthusiasm. That’s what you want to see from young guys, that tough situations don’t demoralize you. You still keep that kid in you about the game. That’s what I am. I just like playing, man. There’s going to be tough times. Obviously, the season started off tough so far, but I still believe in us. I believe in what coach Frank is teaching. I believe in the system. I believe in every guy in that locker room. Every night we go out and take the floor, I still believe we can compete with everyone.”

Wilkins sees young building blocks in Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. While it’s too soon to project where their careers will take them, Wilkins sees a similar passion for the game and winning in them.

“I definitely see it,” he said. “I see it a lot in Brandon. He has a fire, a competitive fire, about him. Greg, you can tell he’s competitive. He cares. That’s what you want for your young guys, especially the transition period we’re in right now.”