“From a coaching standpoint, the No. 1 way you improve is within,” Frank said upon wrapping up his first season as Pistons coach. “You can’t look outside for help because you never know. Joe will tackle that in regard to the draft, free agency. But if you’re always looking on the outside to get better, you’re never going to get better. We’ve got to get our own guys better.
“In this league, it’s been proven. Regardless of your years of experience, there’s always room for growth, whether it’s adding parts to your game. It always starts with your body in terms of strength and conditioning. We have a fair number of young players who haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at where the Pistons can hope for internal improvement:
Point Guard – Brandon Knight got thrown into the fire more than the Pistons anticipated when early-season injuries to first Rodney Stuckey and then Ben Gordon made him a starter just seven games into his career.
Knight got noticeably better as the season unfolded at cutting down on mistakes – not just turnovers, but other areas of decision-making, as well – and growing increasingly comfortable at controlling the game’s flow. It’s reasonable to expect statistical upgrades from Knight’s 12.8 points and 3.8 assists per game and 42 percent shooting, but the biggest strides the Pistons expect will be in managing the game and growing into a leadership role for which Knight seems well-suited.
Knight’s 38 percent 3-point accuracy was an eye-opener; that’s one area where young players rarely exceed the league norm as they adjust to the NBA’s greater 3-point distance. Knight has the potential to grow into an elite 3-point bomber.
Will Bynum goes into the off-season as Knight’s backup. At his best, he’s a disruptive defensive force and a terrific change-of-pace attacking penetrator. Walker D. Russell Jr., a D-League acquisition, is a free agent who could be part of the team’s summer roster.
Shooting Guard – Once Rodney Stuckey recovered from an early-season groin strain and overcame missing training camp while his contract was negotiated, he played at an All-Star level for a two-month period in the middle of the season before a smorgasbord of leg injuries disrupted his momentum.
Stuckey took more of a voice in the locker room in his fourth season under a coach whose consistency of message and structure struck a cord with him. Vowing to spend time over the summer with Knight and other teammates, Stuckey is poised to have his best season next year if he can avoid nagging injuries.
Ben Gordon, assuming he’s back for his fourth season with the Pistons, showed in flashes the player who was a rock of consistency over his five years in Chicago. He ended the season on a high, scoring 28 points and draining 7 of 7 3-pointers in the second quarter of the finale. The Pistons will be looking for those explosive games more often, but more than that Frank will spend the summer plotting ways to get the best out of Gordon on a more consistent basis.
Center – Frank banged the drum all season whenever the question of Monroe’s potential arose: He’s been really good this season, Frank would begin, but he’s got so much more within him to give. The Pistons sent Monroe home for the summer with the message that they were fully pleased with the progress he showed them from rookie to second seasons, but they expect the same type of improvement again next year.
Gains in physical strength and level of conditioning, the continued expansion of his blossoming offensive arsenal and more assertiveness should converge to allow Monroe to take that next step.
Behind him … well, that’s an area of concentration for Joe D this summer. Ben Wallace at least cracked the door to the possibility of his return as the season ended.
Rookie Vernon Macklin had an intriguing 10-game stint in the D-League, averaging 14-plus points and rebounds an outing, and if he can build off of that in summer league and into training camp, he’ll be a frontcourt rotation option. A veteran free agent who can be counted on to be ready even if he’s not a part of the rotation at this position is a possibility.
Power Forward – Jason Maxiell is the incumbent after his best NBA season – if he decides to play out the last year of his contract and not exercise his right to opt out and become a free agent. It’s too close to call at this point. Maxiell came out of the season saying he would have to give the matter serious thought before free agency opens July 1.
Even if he’s back, the position again appears headed for a job-sharing solution that could involve both Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villaneuva.
Jerebko bounced back from the Achilles tendon rupture that cost him the 2010-11 season without missing a beat. He’s one of the players Frank undoubtedly feels has room for growth. A gifted athlete with a high-rev motor, Jerebko has shown that he can become a scorer who gets his points in areas other than just hustle plays, but his offensive game can use refinement still. Still rehabbing a summer ago and unable to do more than individual work, Jerebko this summer will be able to work on the full spectrum of his game.
Villanueva’s 2011-12 was ravaged by an ankle injury that cost him half the season. A workout regimen strength coach Arnie Kander devised for him saw Villanueva return in the best shape of his NBA career and, in spurts, he showed how valuable his deep shooting range and scoring versatility could be.
The draft could be a big factor at this position, as well. The Pistons head to the May 30 lottery in the No. 9 spot in a draft whose strength is in its big men. They don’t figure to land an instant-impact player – unless they cash in on the 1.7 percent chance to land the top pick that would yield Kentucky All-American Anthony Davis, at least – but there will be several players in that range who could lend size and talent to the frontcourt mix.
Small Forward – Tayshaun Prince, who won Frank over as he has his past Pistons coaches for his versatility and dependability, returns as the incumbent and the player who again will eat up 30-plus minutes.
After him, everything is up for grabs. Journeyman Damien Wilkins came to training camp last December without anything guaranteed to him, but won a roster spot and eventually beat out Austin Daye to become Prince’s backup. A free agent again, Wilkins’ return probably hinges on other developments.
One of them? The vibe the Pistons get from Daye. He’s likely to be a part of their summer league team, somewhat of an oddity for a third-year player but a gauge of the stalled progress of Daye’s career. Playing in Russia during the lockout set him back, he felt, as he lost 10 pounds. Daye’s floundering confidence undermined his shot-making ability, the thing that set him apart as unique on his 6-foot-11 frame. The Pistons still see a world of offensive potential within Daye, but the ball is in his court. He made strides in strength gains throughout the season, thanks again to a Kander-inspired pushup regimen, and continuing down that path is critical for Daye.
Kyle Singler, the 2011 No. 2 pick who found unexpected success in Spain after signing there during the lockout, is expected to be with the Pistons in Orlando for summer league play. If he returns to the NBA, as expected, Singler will be a candidate to win the backup spot here.
If the Pistons address their frontcourt adequately – either in the draft, free agency or trade – it’s also possible that Jerebko could swing to small forward and stake claim to the backup job to Prince.
The Pistons also have two second-round picks this season, the 39th and 44th selections, in a draft that should still be pumping out solid prospects in that range. That means a possibility of four new players (Singler plus three 2012 draft picks) and another handful of young players (Knight, Monroe, Stuckey, Jerebko, Daye) with significant growth potential – and everybody comes back with a season’s worth of familiarity with Frank’s system. No matter what changes the Pistons manage with their roster, Frank’s contention that their greatest opportunity for improvement comes from within looks dead-on.