Soaring Expectations

His shot’s not falling, but KCP’s rippling potential on display for Pistons

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Despite quiet shooting outings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has impressed the Pistons coaching staff in other ways during Summer League.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
ORLANDO – When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope decided to parlay a sizzling second half to his sophomore season into a run at the NBA draft, the assessment from the league’s advisory committee wasn’t particularly glowing. They had him pegged as a borderline first-round pick.

“Late first round, early second round – that was the feedback I was getting,” he told me here as the Pistons participated in Summer League. “But I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that. I thought I could do better than that. I thought I could compete with the players in my draft class and I showed that in Chicago and in the workouts.”

Caldwell-Pope never wavered, never considered returning to Georgia for his junior season, once he made up his mind to test the waters. And it didn’t take him long, once the draft evaluation process kicked up a notch, to justify the faith in himself.

By the time the NBA draft combine was held in mid-May in Chicago, Caldwell-Pope was seen as a fringe lottery pick, and momentum kept building over the next six weeks. Minnesota, holding the No. 9 pick, had keen if thinly veiled interest in drafting him, which led the Pistons to conduct a stealth campaign to mask their own interest in the size, athleticism and shooting range they felt Caldwell-Pope provided.

The shooting hasn’t yet come to the fore through two Summer League games – Caldwell-Pope is just 1 of 14 from the 3-point line – but the athleticism and defensive ability and mind-set the Pistons saw in him have been evident. He picked up four steals in Monday’s loss and had an eye-opening blocked shot in Sunday’s win. In each game, he attempted bold dunks over shot-blockers by taking off well outside the restricted area, drawing a foul on one and crushing the ball into the back rim on both.

Nobody’s worried about his shooting – his track record strongly suggests his shooting will translate to the NBA – but everybody, teammates to coaches to the front office that came to a consensus on his value as a lottery pick, has been impressed by all those other facets of his game.

“That game shows you what kind of player he is,” said Maz Trakh, the Mo Cheeks’ assistant in charge of the Summer League team, after his debut. “He may not have shot the ball well, but it never affected his defensive game. You can’t teach that. He played the whole game.”

Caldwell-Pope brushed off the adjustment to the NBA’s longer 3-point distance, but didn’t discount the adjustment to the speed of the game and the absence of space when frantic defenders – most of them looking to win a contract, either from an NBA or international team – close out on shooters.

“There’s not much space in this league,” he said after Monday’s game. “Once you get an open shot, just take it. Nine times out of 10, it’s not going to be there again.”

It isn’t lost on Caldwell-Pope that the path to playing time for him starts with making an impression at the other end, by playing that same suffocating defense he’s seen applied to him.

“That’s really what I work on a lot,” he said. “Defense wins games and I think I can come in and make an immediate impact. I know my offensive game is going to come. It’s just doing the small things like getting steals, rebounds, getting my hands on balls and just leading into transition. Offense is going to come.”

The rookie projects a more reserved, guarded aura than the teammates who make up the young core of the Pistons, but they all made sure to welcome him in the universal language of the locker room – by cracking on him pretty good.

When Caldwell-Pope knocked down a 3-pointer in a scrimmage on the second day of practices, Greg Monroe said, “Nice shot. It took you two or three days, but nice shot.” The following day, when he drew gasps by throwing down the kind of dunk he’s attempted twice in Summer League – taking off just inside the free-throw line and getting way over the rim – Monroe mockingly asked, “Who’s the new guy?” to his teammates.\

At the next water break, he walked past Caldwell-Pope and said, “It took you two days to make a shot and three days to jump. Gotta be quicker than that.”

It was just the type of initiation that drew out Caldwell-Pope’s personality and let him know he was one of the gang.

“They’ve been talking like that the whole time,” he grinned. “I know I can rebound the ball, but Greg was like, ‘Just stay off the boards. That’s my and Dre’s job.’ I’ve got a great connection with the players already. We’re already communicating and trying to get that chemistry going.”

Now. About getting that shot going. The pattern of Caldwell-Pope’s two years at Georgia was marked by a straight-line path of progress, from freshman year to sophomore year, and especially from the first half of his sophomore year to the second. A mid-season talk he had with Bulldogs coach Mark Fox, he said, turned the light bulb on for him.

“The first half, I wasn’t being consistent,” he said. “Me and coach Fox sat down, went over the offense, broke down what I was doing wrong, the strengths and weaknesses. We broke down the offense, showing me ways I could score, who was open, and I took advantage of that and went with it.”

Caldwell-Pope closed the season with a rush, winning SEC Player of the Year honors despite his team’s lack of success. Like almost every rookie, especially 20-year-olds, he needs to get stronger and he’ll surely benefit from the intense training and coaching he’ll soak up in the three months from now until training camp. And as he showed in an even narrower time frame – from his decision to enter the draft in April to the June draft – and through his audacious dunk attempts, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is capable of meteoric rises.