Summer Review: KCP

Pistons No. 1 pick’s quick learning curve makes him a starting candidate

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a lasting impression on the Pistons' coaching staff during Orlando Summer League.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Third in a series that looks at the five first- or second-year Pistons who participated in Summer League practices or games last month. Next: Andre Drummond.)

Over his final three Summer League games, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope averaged 18 points, shot 19 free throws and found his 3-point stroke. If there were sighs of relief, they weren’t coming from Joe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks. The No. 8 pick in June’s draft had already made an impression on them, even as he missed 13 of 14 shots from the 3-point line over his first two games.

“After the first couple of games, when his shot wasn’t falling, Mo said, ‘I love this kid. I love what he’s doing on the court.’ You don’t worry about a guy’s shot the first day, the first time he steps on the court,” Dumars said. “You watch to see how he plays, how he adjusts, how he’s defending, running, getting into people, rebounding, steals. He was doing all those things. Those are the things that jump out and caught our eye.”

From the first practice run by Maz Trakh, who accompanied Cheeks from the staff at Oklahoma City, Caldwell-Pope’s quick hands were apparent. His practices followed the course of his five-game Summer League performance – the shot wasn’t there at first, but the totality of the rookie’s game emerged day by day. At 6-foot-6 with long arms and quick feet, he’s a candidate to instantly help the Pistons on the defensive perimeter even if the offensive adjustment isn’t immediate.

“What to me really shined for Kentavious was the tremendous amount of effort and aggression he played with on the defensive end,” Pistons assistant general manager George David said. “His aggression on the defensive end is something that allows him to take his time to develop on the offensive end. We talked about him being a very good shooter and I think he showed that as the week went on. But even in games his shot didn’t fall, Kentavious had a tremendous impact in other areas. When you can do that, especially as a rookie, what it does is give you an opportunity to play.”

Caldwell-Pope happens to play the one position, shooting guard, that would appear to have a path to the starting lineup for this year’s team. Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith look set as the starting frontcourt, and newly acquired Brandon Jennings is likely penciled in as the point guard.

Rodney Stuckey is an accomplished NBA starter, but he’s also comfortable coming off the bench, where he could be the featured scorer on the second unit. Caldwell-Pope’s potential as a 3-point shooter – not a strength of Stuckey’s – would ideally complement the projected starting frontcourt, which lacks perimeter shooting. If Caldwell-Pope can show in training camp and preseason games that he’ll hold his own against starting shooting guards and knock down an acceptable share of open jump shots, he’ll have a chance to win the starting job.

“We think he’s a really good athlete,” Dumars said. “We think his court speed, his ability to explode to the basket, his ability to disrupt on defense – we like all those things about him. We think he’s got a bright future.”

Drummond and Monroe did their part to welcome Caldwell-Pope to the club, Drummond exhorting the rookie to keep shooting during games and Monroe initiating him with good-natured needling during the five practices they shared before Summer League play opened.

“I had to hit him upside his head a couple of times to make him shoot the ball,” Drummond said. “Me being down there kind of helped me be a leader, as well. Just being around him, he can shoot the ball really well, great defender. You saw him get in the passing lanes, get steals and he finishes strong around the rim. He tries to dunk everything when he goes down there. I’m glad he’s here.”

“I was just trying to give him a little bit of confidence,” Monroe said. “As everybody does, first coming into the league, it’s all new to you. You’re a little bit nervous, so I just tried to tell him, ‘This is just basketball. You know what you’re doing. You’re here for a reason.’ We know how talented he is – just a good all-around player. He does a lot of things really well and he’s only going to get better.”

Adding perimeter athleticism was an off-season priority for Dumars, and adding Caldwell-Pope and Smith gives the Pistons a dramatic upgrade on the wings. The rookie’s athleticism manifested itself in various ways during Summer League practices and games, drawing gasps a few times with explosive moves that unexpectedly ended at the rim or appearing in a heartbeat from the weak side to block a layup.

“When I watched him in college, I said he’s as athletic as the play needs him to be,” David said. “Whatever the play calls for from an athletic standpoint, he seems to be capable of reaching that to make the play. I never thought of him as a freakish athlete or a guy who was going to jump out of the gym, but he was always athletic enough to make whatever the play called for. If the play called for him to rise up a little higher, he did it.”

If the rookie shows that same knack in training camp – and if he adapts as quickly as he did in Summer League – he’ll make a compelling case to slide into the one position with a bit of uncertainty surrounding it for the 2012-13 Pistons.