Handle with Care

Pistons steadfast in bringing Drummond along at his pace

Lawrence Frank is determined to bring rookie Andre Drummond along patiently.
Layne Murdoch (NBAE/Getty)
Lawrence Frank has proceeded with care where the inevitable pairing of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond is concerned. This, by all available evidence, is to the great consternation of Pistons fans.

Even in Houston in Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, two minutes into the game a leather-lunged fan seated a few dozen rows behind Detroit’s bench yelled for Frank to put Drummond in the game.

Frank has called the more regular tandem use of Monroe, 6-foot-11 and 22, with Drummond, a 19-year-old 7-footer, ideal. He’s said it will happen. He’s called it their future. The future is close. But it is not right now, necessarily.

“We’ve said it from day one,” Frank said Saturday. “We’re just not going to throw him to the wolves. This is going to be a process and it has nothing to do with the fact that we don’t think it can work. But there’s a buildup to this, because one of the things you’d hate to do is throw it all out there and then have to go all the way back. That one is tough to recover from mentally for many players. We’ll continue to build like we have. Not every game is going to be a masterpiece for him – and it’s shouldn’t be. He’s 19.”

When Frank made Monroe-Drummond a reality for the first time, late in the third quarter of Friday’s loss at Oklahoma City, it produced instant and dramatic results. On the second and third offensive possessions they would ever run together, Monroe found Drummond for layups, underscoring (a) Monroe’s well-documented keen passing skills and (b) Drummond’s athleticism and finishing ability to everyone’s fascination.

Drummond produced in volume against one of the NBA’s elite teams, putting up 22 points and eight rebounds in just 20 minutes. If he can be half as productive routinely, the Monroe-Drummond pairing will be a fixture before November is out.

Then came Saturday. Drummond put up decent numbers – seven points and seven boards in 20 minutes, though his impact on the game wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it had been 24 hours earlier. It was less than a masterpiece, to borrow from Frank.

But let’s take a step back. Drummond is still error prone, not alarmingly so, but error prone in the ways the Pistons fully expected of a teenager with one abnormal college season on his resume. In that same game, when the Pistons had given themselves a chance to win in large measure because of Drummond, he misplayed an Oklahoma City screen and roll that yielded a Kendrick Perkins dunk and fired an outlet pass to the vicinity of Aerosmith’s bemused Steven Tyler.

Pressed almost daily on his thinking about the timing of playing the two lottery picks together, Frank has tried his best to be vague. But it’s pretty clear he wants Drummond to earn a bigger role, not be handed it.

“You’ve also got to make sure that it’s warranted,” he said. “You can’t, in game six of a season, just throw guys out there and experiment if it’s not based on effort. When guys are working hard, that’s why you do it. There are a lot of things that have to align for it to happen.”

That’s makes perfect sense, especially when the two players who would be most directly affected by Drummond’s elevation are Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko, as highly respected and well liked as any two players in the locker room. That’s not to be taken lightly. Teammates respect their toughness, coaches their reliability. The fact they’re so well liked, on top of that, means a coach would risk tainting team chemistry if the move was based on anything other than pure merit.

Twenty-two and eight in 20 minutes … yeah, anybody would agree that’s doing it on pure merit. And his teammates, genuinely supportive and protective of Drummond all the way around, have noted that their physically imposing rookie does seem to be one among the breed that plays better in games than practice. But two games earlier, Drummond produced zero points and one rebound in six minutes, and those nights are neither unexpected or behind him, in all likelihood.

He’s handled the responsibility Frank has given him with aplomb so far, playing at least as big a role this early in his career as Monroe – a more polished and fundamentally sound product after two years at Georgetown – played as a rookie. To put too much too soon on Drummond and then have to cut back on his role, as Frank noted, would run the risk of undermining his confidence.

And that’s just the Drummond end of the equation. Frank has to be greatly concerned about that to the extend that Drummond is critical to the franchise’s future, but he has to be concerned about the effects teamwide, as well.

What about Monroe? He’s the player who will be most directly affected, after all. A generation ago, there wouldn’t have been much ado about sliding over from center to power forward and back. But today, with many teams running four-out, one-in offenses predominantly? Yeah, it’s a big switch for Monroe, who has become comfortable and accomplished at center.

“We don’t want to take Greg out of his sweet spot,” Frank said. “He’s still a young player. It’s not like he’s got (center) mastered. So it’s a delicate balance of trying to do that and that’s why, going in, we said we’re just going to build this up through the course of the season. It’s nice that it’s had success, so there’s merit to it. We obviously see the big picture in terms of those two guys, but you have to mess up two guys. There’s no right or wrong answer, but that’s our plan.”

It’s their future. They’re going to approach it cautiously. Some would advocate throwing caution to the wind in the face of a 0-7 start. Those are people with no skin in the game. The Pistons get one shot at this. They’re determined to make sure it’s fired when the time is right.