Pistons by Position Countdown: 2

Stuckey, KCP to battle for one Pistons starting spot that appears in doubt

Rodney Stuckey
Rodney Stuckey looks to fill the open shooting guard position
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Fourth of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Friday: point guards.)

Rodney Stuckey seemed on the verge of stardom as a rookie, when he was at times the Pistons’ best player during the 2008 playoff run that ended in the conference finals against eventual champion Boston. For a stretch that lasted more than a month in his first year under Lawrence Frank, he appeared on the cusp of All-Star status, carrying the offense as both an efficient scorer and facilitator.

Now playing for his fifth head coach as he enters his seventh season, Stuckey could be coming to a career crossroads. Still young enough, at 27, to have his best years ahead of him, and entering the last year of a three-year deal he signed with the Pistons coming out of the 2011 lockout, Stuckey could be the key piece in a lineup that figures to include four dynamic players around him in young holdovers Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe and high-wattage newcomers Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.

Inconsistency has dogged him over his first six seasons, but Pistons brass is openly optimistic that Stuckey is due for a productive season.

“We certainly expect Stuckey to have a good year,” Joe Dumars said as training camp approaches. “I think Stuckey looks around now and he really likes this team. It’s going to serve him well. It’s going to fit him well, too. We have guards that can really create and we have bigs that can command attention. For those perimeter guys, it opens the floor. It allows you to play. That’s what has to be appealing for a kid like Stuckey.”

POSITION: Shooting Guard
  • Depth chart: Rodney Stuckey, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  • Options: Chauncey Billups, Kyle Singler
  • Flexibility: Stuckey has spent the bulk of his career at point guard, though not as much in the past two seasons with the addition of Brandon Knight in the 2011 draft. He also has the size and strength to effectively match up with many small forwards. Caldwell-Pope probably plays nothing but shooting guard initially..
  • The skinny: The only real starting job with a degree of uncertainty headed to training camp is this one. Stuckey is the safest bet – and probably winds up playing the most minutes at shooting guard – but might he fit better as a go-to scorer with the second unit? And, if so, is Caldwell-Pope ready to play at least nominal starter’s minutes?

Stuckey’s scoring average and minutes have dropped for four straight seasons, from career bests of 16.6 and 34.2 for the undermanned 2009-10 Pistons to 11.5 and 29 last season. He spent the off-season focused on becoming even stronger – already one of his biggest advantages – and will come to camp in the best shape of his career. A constant among the coaches he’s answered to over his Pistons tenure is their belief that Stuckey is at his best when he is in attack mode. The composition of the roster this year might make it easier for him to consistently do so.

“Athletically, we’ll be there,” he said. “It’s mainly putting it all together. We have a lot of guys who can go out and get 15 points a night. But it’s all about chemistry, putting it together, trying to combine everything, making sure guys are always on the same page, nobody’s going to be getting any egos. It’s all about winning. If we’re winning games, everyone looks good.”

Maurice Cheeks, lauded in past stops for his ability to draw out the best in young players, has reached out to Stuckey when they’ve crossed paths this summer to encourage Stuckey to take a leadership stake in the Pistons.

“I’m one of the vets on this team now,” he said. “He just pretty much talked to me about being a leader and just coming to work every day, just grab the guys with me and have them follow me. He wants me to be a leader out there. Just from talking to him, every time we end our conversations, he always tells me, ‘I’m going to help you out.’ ”

That force field of positive energy Stuckey has exuded this summer has struck those who’ve been around him throughout his NBA career.

“Rodney has been in the gym a lot this summer,” said George David, Pistons assistant general manager. “He’s been on the floor at lot. He’s really shown signs of endearing himself to this coaching staff and you can just see the spirit in him this summer. More so than at any time that I’ve seen him, Rodney seems to have a determination and a spirit about him, almost to prove something. I think there’s been a noticeable endearing between him and the coaches and you can see it out there on the floor as he’s working now. I think that’ll carry over into the season. Rodney has a chance to have an outstanding year and I really anticipate that.”

While Stuckey might be the frontrunner at the position, Cheeks will have options. Chauncey Billups made it clear that he still views himself as a point guard, despite playing shooting guard the past two years alongside Chris Paul in Los Angeles, and his shooting stroke and big-game aplomb will make him a strong candidate to be on the floor in some capacity in the final moments of undecided games. Kyle Singler started at shooting guard from the season’s ninth game until the late-January trade that shipped Tayshaun Prince to Memphis necessitated his shifting to small forward.

Long term, the Pistons feel strongly that lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be the answer at shooting guard. A strong second half of his sophomore season at Georgia compelled him to enter the NBA draft, where he went from a projected late first-rounder to the No. 8 pick as scouts delved more into his body of work. Most rookies need time to grow comfortable with the longer 3-point shot and speed of defenders to become effective deep shooters, but Caldwell-Pope showed the Pistons in Summer League that he’s capable of contributing in areas beyond 3-point shooting.

“He’s not just a stand-still 3-point shooter,” Dumars said. “He’s an athlete. He’s a high-energy player. He plays with a quick twitch. We think he has a chance to be a really good defender in this league. He brings a lot more to the court than just spotting up and shooting threes. This is a guy that can really get out on the fast break and run, a guy that can really get up and finish above the rim, that can really lock in and defend guys, that can really draw fouls driving to the basket. We see a complete player.”

Caldwell-Pope’s long wing span and quick hands and feet stamped him as a disruptive defender in the glimpses the Pistons saw of him in Summer League, where he recovered from a dreadful shooting debut – 1 of 14 from the 3-point line in his first two games – to finish with a rush. Over the last three games, Caldwell-Pope averaged 18 points and got to the foul line 19 times, showing eye-opening ability to get to the rim and explode over defenders. As much as anything, what the Pistons love about Caldwell-Pope is how hard he consistently plays.

“One of the things that stuck out with us for Kentavious was his motor,” David said. “His motor, especially on the defensive end, it jumped out at you when you watched him play. The difference between someone you look at with a lottery pick as opposed to someone picked in the 40s or 50s is how does that motor carry over into other areas? Is it just a motor? And with him, it carried over into a lot of different areas. It carried over into his ability to score the basketball, into his ability to shoot the basketball and into his ability to defend to the point where he became SEC Player of the Year.”

The Pistons are confident Caldwell-Pope will eventually show the 3-point stroke that made him an offensive force at Georgia and that he’ll offer enough in other areas to challenge for playing time as a rookie.

“He’s shown he can knock down open jump shots,” David said. “You look at that as part of what you envision him being able to do through time and effort and work. But that motor becomes so big because if they don’t have a motor and they miss a few shots, one, their confidence can get down and, two, they may have a difficult time finding their way on the court. When they can make plays in other ways, then when they knock down shots, it’s a bonus. He’s a guy who will put in the work to make sure that happens. He’s going to be somebody who is able to really help us on the perimeter offensively. He’s going to get better and better and better.”