Pistons by Position Countdown: 4
Team USA experience boosts Monroe’s shift to power forward for Pistons
(Editor’s note: Second of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Wednesday: small forwards.)
The Pistons couldn’t have planned Greg Monroe’s summer transition to power forward this way, but they couldn’t have planned it any better if they had.
The key was the invitation from USA Basketball to its late-July minicamp, where Monroe wound up spending a good deal of his time at power forward. And not just playing power forward, but playing the position against elite young players of all shapes and sizes – which is exactly the challenge that faces power forwards across the modern NBA.
In the growing trend of teams “playing small,” the key position is power forward. What playing small essentially means is getting your five best players on the floor and for most teams that means one big man and four perimeter players.
That recipe won’t fit the ingredients on the Pistons’ roster, though, and for them to finish games with both Monroe and Andre Drummond on the floor, Monroe will have to be comfortable guarding stretch fours – power forwards whose calling card is shooting out to and beyond the 3-point line – and even outright small forwards masquerading as power forwards. In Las Vegas, for instance, he guarded Golden State’s Harrison Barnes and New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson, among others.
Monroe also got a taste of power forward when he accompanied the Summer League team to Orlando and participated in five practices. In those practices, he played alongside Drummond, usually matched up against hyperathletic second-round pick Tony Mitchell, a 6-foot-9 power forward who’ll spend the season bunched at the rear of the Pistons’ deepest position group.
“I saw him having to guard Tony Michell, a four man who’s athletic, and then at USA Basketball he had to guard four men, some of them who were really threes when they went small – Harrison Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,” Joe Dumars said. “It could not have worked out better for us, the summer he ended up having. Greg’s a versatile, talented, smart kid. A lot of the questions of sliding to a new position, when you’re dealing with a high-IQ player, they tend to figure it out quicker than most.”
While Monroe will have an adjustment in guarding power forwards – especially the ones more comfortable facing the basket from the 3-point line than playing in the paint – he won’t have quite the same responsibility defending pick-and-roll basketball which more frequently involves the center and point guard. That will be left to Drummond, whose lateral quickness and ability to recover make him unique. The Pistons saw in Las Vegas that Monroe appeared comfortable guarding away from the rim.
“We could not have asked for a better setup than the USA Basketball camp because not only did he play the four, he played a number of (scrimmages) at the four with Andre at the five and he got to play the four against high-level fours,” Pistons assistant general manager George David said.
“A lot of times you’ll see when a young guy is going to a different position, the team will use Summer League to give him an opportunity. The only thing about that is there are very few players in Summer League who will start at the four (in the NBA). That can be a little bit of fool’s gold. The opportunity for him to play at USA Basketball camp against that level of talent at the four, it was a perfect preparation for him and I think he did well with it.”
Monroe, now 23, is coming off a third season in which he averaged career bests in points (16.9) and assists (3.5) while averaging 9.6 rebounds a game, just under the 9.7 he averaged as a second-year player. With the addition of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings as well as the expanded role due Drummond, the Pistons will surround him with more potent options than he’s ever enjoyed. Yet Monroe very likely will remain the focal point of the offense for the threat he represents as both a scorer and passer from multiple areas.
The next step for Monroe: confidence in his ability to consistently knock down mid-range jump shots that will be available to him given the firepower now at his sides.
“No question,” David said. “Greg and I talked a lot this summer about this. We talked about just the difference in his game overall with being able to knock down an open, face-up 15- to 17-foot jump shot consistently. One of the things we talked about is it’s hard to get better at five different things in one summer. It’s a lot easier to focus on one thing. What Greg has done a sensational job of this summer is zoning in on that one thing and he’s put a lot of work in both here and (Washington, where he works out at Georgetown) at summer school and back in Louisiana, putting in a lot of work at the USA Basketball practices, in Summer League when he was down in Orlando – he’s put a lot of work into that.
“It’s going to be a work in progress, but I think Greg is determined to show growth in that area. In all of my conversations with him this summer, I’ve been really impressed with his determination. That has really stood out to me.”
Behind Monroe on the depth chart are two veterans who’ve played major roles for the Pistons, at various times, over the past four seasons, Charlie Villanueva and Jonas Jerebko. Yet there might not be room in the rotation for both of them, because the player expected to play nearly as many minutes at power forward as Monroe is Smith, the starter at small forward. When Monroe or Drummond sits, the other will likely be on the floor at center with Smith often shifting over to play power forward.
“What we like about having both Charlie and Jonas is the depth it gives our team,” Dumars said. “It’s been the case here for a long time: With all of our great teams, we were always deep. We’ve never been a team that’s been successful when we’ve depended on one or two guys. Having guys like Charlie and Jonas – who have been NBA rotation players, who have started, who have had big games – is going to help you. Just the way the game goes, you might need to stretch the floor some nights, you might need that high-energy guy some nights. Having depth always serves you well.”
Villanueva’s edge is his deep shooting ability. In particular, Villanueva flourished last season with a second unit whose other constant forces were Will Bynum and Drummond. Their pick and roll success meshed effectively with Villanueva’s 3-point threat, creating space that both elements need to function. Jerebko languished on the bench for much of last season, but seemed to rediscover himself down the stretch when given a chance to play. At his best, nobody on the roster affects games in ways that the box score doesn’t reflect quite like the robust 6-foot-10 Swede, who comes to camp fresh off of another stint with his national team.
David said he expects the roster turnover to influence Villanueva’s season for the good.
“We expect Charlie to have a very good season,” he said. “He was in the other day and his body looks good. We feel as though we’ve upgraded the talent on this roster and no matter what position you play as a shooter, the higher the talent level the better looks that shooter is going to get. I think it’s going to be really good for Charlie. In terms of some of the areas we’ve upgraded the talent, it’s going to open more avenues for him.”
David has been a Jerebko fan since spotting him in Italy, where he displayed the same fearlessness and abandon that endeared him to Pistons fans as a rookie who carved out a major role in the 2009-10 season.
“What Jonas brings to the table, from when we first saw him as a European player, is one of the better effort-energy-hustle guys who finds a way to stay on the court based on that. You look around our league at guys who do that consistently, they find a way to get on the court. Jonas has always found a way to utilize that.”
The Pistons didn’t go into the 2013 draft targeting power forward, necessarily, but when Mitchell – a player they had projected as a late lottery pick in 2012 before a less-than-anticipated sophomore season at North Texas State – fell to No. 37, they pounced. After two months of seeing him up close, they’re not sorry.
“Everybody in this building likes Tony Mitchell,” Dumars said. “They love his personality, they love his athleticism, they love the way he comes in and works, no complaints, has a great spirit about him. We have the luxury of bringing him along at whatever pace is best for him at this point. But I think Tony’s going to compete. He’s not going to back down. He’s not going to stand at the back of the line and wait. I think he’s going to try to fight his way out there and see if he can get some minutes.”