Speak Up

Young 7-footers must master communication to earn Pistons roles

The Pistons are looking for vocal leadership from their new big men.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
Now that Rasheed Wallace is back in the NBA, if you roll down your window chances are you can hear his piercing voice bellowing instructions to New York Knicks perimeter defenders from his perch in the paint.

Everything about Rasheed was loud, which at times made him a lightning rod of controversy but always elevated him to esteem within his own locker room. Players loved playing with Rasheed, for his willingness to be the target of opposition fan abuse to the way he covered for their defensive gaffes.

The Pistons haven’t had a rim protector quite like him since he departed as a free agent following the 2008-09 season, though Ben Wallace’s return to the roster that following season at least gave them a defensive identity. Now, though, the additions of young and athletic 7-footers Andre Drummond and Slava Kravtsov give Lawrence Frank a dynamic the Pistons sorely lacked in his first season.

But length, athleticism and natural shot-blocking instincts aren’t quite enough to guarantee either player a spot in Frank’s rotation. Most coaches would sacrifice the occasional wow play for a player who can be counted on to show up in the right place at the right time consistently.

“When you’re a big, you’re a quarterback,” Frank said after Wednesday’s morning practice on the second day of training camp. “There have been very few big guys who are great defenders in this league that aren’t great talkers – and loud talkers. You think about this game, there’s 65 to 80 pick and rolls a game and you’re going to be involved, one way or another, in all of those.”

Kravtsov and Drummond were involved in one such pick and roll late in the scrimmage portion. Kravtsov set a screen that jarred rookie Kim English, who didn’t know the pick was coming.

Both 7-footers face steep learning curves for different reasons – Drummond because, at 19 and with just one atypical college season under his belt, he simply has played precious little basketball beyond AAU and prep school, Kravtsov because he’s never played outside his Ukrainian pro league and has something of a language barrier to overcome as he absorbs the usual avalanche of information that gets thrown at players in the first week of training camp.

“There’s a universal language,” Frank said. “Every player wants to play, so they figure it out. ‘I’ve got to talk to play.’ All of a sudden, you’re going to Berlitz language school and you’re figuring it out. (Kravtsov) is a smart guy. It has nothing to do with your ability to speak the language. It’s first knowing what we do. You can only speak what you know. It’s only the third practice, but he has some really good attributes and we’ve got to continue to get him better.”

Frank maintains that Kravtsov, who played for American coach Mike Fratello with his national team the past two summers, doesn’t have to be especially proficient in English to speak the language of basketball.

“Some of the biggest talkers I know on the court, they don’t say a word off the court. That’s what it takes to play. I’ve never seen a good defensive team that was silent. You’ve got to be able to talk it. There are no other options.”

Once Frank’s defensive system becomes second nature for Drummond and Kravtsov, they’re convincing teammates they’ll make a difference defensively.

“They’re two big guys that can run the floor,” Rodney Stuckey said. “They both still have to get better at some things, but we’ve got two big athletes back there that can protect the paint and also run the floor for us. They’re here for a reason. They’ll be ready.”

Kravtsov was the first name Stuckey uttered when he was asked who’d caught his eye in the opening days.

“I like Slava,” he said. “He’s going to help us out. A big guy that can run the floor, when he gets to the free-throw line he can make his free throws, he protects the paint. I really like him. What I saw on film is actually what he’s doing. He’s still got to get acclimated to the NBA game, but he’s only going to get better. I’m happy to have him on the team.”