Early Intrigue

Early preseason games pair Pistons’ Drummond, Toronto’s Valanciunas

By the time the regular season starts, never mind by the time a few dozen games have been played, the images of the first preseason game usually have evaporated into the mist. More often than not, whatever we thought might have been significant at the time has been rendered inconsequential.

But when you look at the Pistons’ preseason schedule announced the other day and see the first two games come against Toronto, you can’t help but be mildly intrigued by the prospect of seeing Andre Drummond match up against Jonas Valanciunas.

The two young centers – Valanciunas just turned 20 in May, Drummond turns 19 on Friday – have much to prove in the NBA, of course, but their potential is tantalizing. And if they both hit their marks, they could become the Eastern Conference’s dominant big men whenever Dwight Howard vacates the premises, forming a rivalry that could go a long way toward dictating the future of their franchises.

Valanciunas was the No. 5 pick of the 2011 draft despite the virtual certainty he wouldn’t be able to come to the NBA for at least a season due to buyout complications in Europe. Most expected Cleveland to take him with the No. 4 pick. The fact the Cavs went instead for Texas freshman Tristan Thompson had a direct bearing on the Pistons’ draft. They had a high degree of interest in Thompson, of course, but Cleveland passing on Valanciunas triggered the fall of Brandon Knight to the Pistons at seven when it was assumed the Raptors would grab him fifth.

Had Cleveland done the expected, Joe Dumars admitted after the 2011 draft that he and the Raptors were well down the path of a trade that would have moved the Pistons up to fifth. The Raptors backed out when Valanciunas fell to them. If Valanciunas would have kept tumbling, the Pistons would have been every bit as likely to grab him as they were to take Drummond when he fell to ninth a year later.

Many draft analysts felt Valanciunas – even in a stronger 2012 draft – would have been the No. 2 pick behind Anthony Davis this year had he delayed entry by a year. Drummond, of course, was widely considered to be a top-two pick until Connecticut’s season ran off the rails and his impact waxed and waned. So we’re clearly talking about two young big men with extraordinarily high ceilings, even if the rate of their development is difficult to project.

Valanciunas, for reasons that go beyond the 15 months head start he gained on Drummond at life’s starting line, is the safer bet to carve out a role during his rookie season. Valanciunas has multiple seasons of high-level European professional experience under his belt, including success in the ultracompetitive Euroleague, plus a significant role for his Lithuanian national team, knocked out of the medal round of the Olympics by Russia earlier today. Drummond has one year at UConn – a year marked by team dysfunction well beyond his control – and … well, that’s about it, other than the typical AAU journey that experts view skeptically for its capacity to prepare a player for a professional career.

Valanciunas also has a clearer path to playing time. The Raptors really could use somebody to soak up minutes at center, freeing defensive-minded coach Dwane Casey to allow Andrea Bargnani to float out to his comfort zone and limit dependency on journeyman Aaron Gray. Greg Monroe is the Pistons’ incumbent center and they’ve added Ukrainian 7-footer Slava Kravtsov whose strengths – defense and athleticism – appear to overlap Drummond’s at this stage of his development.

Lawrence Frank likely would be willing to slide Monroe to power forward if both Kravtsov and Drummond prove worthy of regular spots in the rotation. But that would require them to also show they have more to offer than the options at power forward, where Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko are among the players Pistons coaches most trust to provide consistent effort and carry out their assignments.

None of those considerations will be much in play for games 1 and 2 of the preseason, though, when Frank and Casey will be digging deeper into their benches than usual and playing lineup combinations they would be hesitant to utilize a month or two later. There’s no guarantee that Drummond and Valanciunas will go head to head for any meaningful stretch, or if they do that they’ll really get much of a chance to go one on one. Neither figures to see many post touches early in their careers.

And by the point in their evolutions where they command post touches, and major roles, and have developed a rivalry that goes a long way toward shaping the futures of their franchises, if it comes to that, chances are no one will remember how they fared in the first two preseason games of their rookie seasons.

So what? It’s still going to be fun catching those initial glimpses and begin assessing the likelihood that the wow moments that made each of them lottery picks will translate into consistent impact-level production.