Final Push

Next 2 preseason games critical for securing rotation berths

With the preseason halfway done, potential rotation lineups are beginning to take shape.
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The Pistons have four preseason games down, four to go. Lawrence Frank says the last two of those will be dress rehearsals for the Oct. 31 season opener. That means Thursday’s game at Miami and Saturday’s game at The Palace against Charlotte represent the last best chance for players to secure their spots in Frank’s rotation.

Frank says he’s never had an ideal number of players in his rotation and doesn’t have a magic number in mind now for how deep into his bench he’ll dip on a regular basis.

“It’s always been based on how the parts fit to me,” he said. “You’re probably not going to play 11 guys. Ten is probably the max you’re going to get in there. The rotation can go anywhere from 7½ to 10.”

It went about 8½ deep a year ago. Frank used Jonas Jerebko and Ben Wallace behind Greg Monroe and Jason Maxiell up front and Ben Gordon as the third guard behind Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight. Sometimes Will Bynum would play, sometimes not, and ditto for Damien Wilkins.

Let’s take a look at how the rotation is taking shape heading into the critical Thursday-Saturday set of games that will nearly crystallize it in Frank’s mind.

LOCKS (4)

Greg Monroe – Primed for a big year after refining both the post and perimeter aspects of his offensive game over the off-season. Also came to camp in the best shape of his career. A big part of Monroe’s off-season workouts involved working on basketball drills interspersed with conditioning drills to accustom him to playing at a higher tempo. The three mid-range jumpers he hit on consecutive possessions in Tuesday’s win over Orlando hinted at the difference it’s made.

Brandon Knight – Emerging as the leader of the team, a fact quickly seized upon by 13-year veteran and newcomer Corey Maggette. Knight spent hours working on his ballhandling – already good – over the summer and has been focused on mastering the craft of playing point guard in the preseason, passing up shots to deliberately get teammates involved. Nobody puts in more work.

Tayshaun Prince – Prince’s game has never been about explosive athleticism, so there is scant evidence of slippage as he enters his 11th season at 32. Not a coach who’s had him since Larry Brown has ever felt comfortable with a game hanging in the balance leaving Prince on the bench. There’s a reason for that. He’s able to morph his game into what the team needs and his basketball IQ ranks in the high 90s percentile.

Rodney Stuckey – No reason to think Stuckey won’t have the best season of his career, health permitting. Despite the handicaps he was under last year, missing all of what little training camp existed as his free agency played out, Stuckey played at an All-Star level for a two-month period between a series of leg injuries that Arnie Kander traced to the lack of proper training due to the lockout.

SAFE BETS (3)

Jonas Jerebko – Frank gave him a look at small forward in preseason, but unless one of Charlie Villanueva or Austin Daye shoots his way back into the mix Jerebko is more likely to split time at power forward with Jason Maxiell. Jerebko’s flat-out hustle simply helps turn games.

Jason Maxiell – His numbers won’t usually jump off the stat sheet, but Maxiell’s utter reliability and physical toughness are treasured by coaches. Teammates love Maxiell for his no-excuses demeanor. His mid-range jump shot has become a weapon.

Corey Maggette – Where he plays might be in question – everything to do with who else warrants a rotation spot and nothing to do with Maggette himself. A more natural small forward, he’s spent more preseason minutes backing up Stuckey at shooting guard. If Jerebko stays at power forward, then it could come down to who between the three perimeter rookies is first in line for a spot. If it’s Kyle Singler, then Maggette stays at shooting guard; if it’s Kim English, then Maggette stays at small forward; if it’s Khris Middleton, they could be interchangeable depending on matchups.

TRENDING UP (2)

Will Bynum – The depth chart might show only four full-time guards, but Frank had some options coming into training camp that could have excluded Bynum – letting Stuckey absorb the 12-15 backup minutes at point guard and using Maggette or one of the rookies to fill in the holes at shooting guard. But Bynum has played well in four preseason games, limiting turnovers, showing keen judgment with shot selection and distributing efficiently.

Andre Drummond – In the race to fill the vacancy created by Ben Wallace’s absence, the rookie has moved to the front of the line. For now, Drummond’s three impressive showings in three extended preseason auditions put him ahead of Villanueva, Daye or fellow rookie 7-footer Slava Kravtsov. His sheer physical presence and the amount of space he can cover simply can’t be ignored. He’ll make his share of novice mistakes, but he’s stringing impact plays together to more than atone.

ON THE BUBBLE (3)

Kyle Singler – In two meaningful stints, Singler has been as advertised: a guy who just makes an endless series of smart plays. He moves the ball on offense and shows a knack for being a disruptive defender. His non-stop motor makes him a friendly target for transition opportunities. There might not be room for any of the perimeter rookies, but all three are making it a tough call for Frank.

Kim English – Much like Singler, English never stops running, always running out ahead of the ball in transition. His 3-point ability and willingness to sell out defensively are his calling cards to early entry to the rotation.

Khris Middleton – Like English, Middleton’s 3-point range makes him a viable option. Both rookies have logged 35 preseason minutes; English is 3 of 6 from the arc, Middleton 4 of 8. He’s showing well in other areas, too, and if he continues to progress his shot at playing will ascend accordingly.

NEED TO MAKE A MOVE (5)

Austin Daye – Daye is a unique player who isn’t defined solely by his scoring ability, but can he possibly do enough in other areas if his shot – which betrayed him for much of last season – isn’t falling? So far, he’s 3 of 14 from the field, 0 of 5 from the arc.

Charlie Villanueva – Similar story here. Charlie V came to camp in the best shape of his career, just as Daye reported stronger than he’s been, but it hasn’t translated in the one area of Villanueva’s game that makes him unique: putting the ball in the basket. So far, he’s 5 of 26, 1 of 11 from the arc.

Slava Kravtsov – Kravtsov showed in the second half of Friday’s loss at Toronto and Tuesday’s win over Orlando the things the Pistons expect from him – well above average athleticism for a 7-footer, rim protection and the ability to create extra possessions. But with Drummond making an aggressive grab at playing time, it will be tough for Kravtsov to leap past him before the regular season starts.

Terrence Williams – The size, court vision and versatility Williams brings to the backcourt make him an intriguing prospect. But Bynum has clearly solidified his standing as the No. 2 point guard and with 15 guaranteed contracts in camp, there is no clear path to a roster spot for Williams.

Jonny Flynn – The Pistons would be most unlikely to keep two undersized point guards behind Brandon Knight, so Flynn’s only real shot at cracking the roster would have been to soundly outplay Bynum in camp. That hasn’t happened, though Flynn’s quickness and tenacity should be his ticket to sticking somewhere in the NBA.