Rookie to the Rescue

Caldwell-Pope helps plug backcourt hole with sturdy 27-minute outing

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
KCP stepped up for Coach Cheeks and the Pistons' shortened backcourt
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

All those butterflies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope admitted were fluttering in his belly as he anticipated the whirlwind of his first night as an NBA basketball player were calmed, if just a little, by a familiar face on the opposite bench.

The latest in a line of lottery picks who’ve enabled the Pistons to hasten their rebuilding, Caldwell-Pope played 27 minutes in Wednesday’s opening night win over Washington, much of them spent guarding a player he first met long before they would become McDonald’s All-American teammates in the spring of 2011 and then departed for competing SEC schools.

But Bradley Beal was targeted as a one-and-done player even before launching his first 3-point basket at Florida, while Caldwell-Pope needed to prove his merits to NBA scouts for all of his two seasons at rival Georgia.

“Every camp I went to, I’ve never been a focal point,” Caldwell-Pope recalls of his AAU matchups with Beal, which first started after their freshman or sophomore year of high school, he said, at the Nike Hoop Jamboree in Beal’s hometown of St. Louis. “I always took a back seat to everybody. I was a sleeper, under the radar.”

Caldwell-Pope popped onto the radar soon enough to be ranked the No. 12 prospect in the country by Rivals.com as a high school senior – eight spots below Beal. They met twice in Beal’s only season at Florida, each team winning on its home court. Beal had two outstanding games, 17 points and 10 rebounds in Florida’s win, 19 and 12 in Georgia’s win. After an eight-point outing in Georgia’s loss, Caldwell-Pope came back with 18 points, five rebounds and four steals when the Bulldogs won.

Beal, entrenched as one of the NBA’s top young shooting guards after closing his rookie season with a rush, scored 17 points for Washington in Wednesday’s opener, but Chauncey Billups and Caldwell-Pope made him work for all of them. He shot 6 of 18.

“I liked his activity on defense,” Maurice Cheeks said after turning to Caldwell-Pope when his expected starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey was unavailable due to injury. “That’s what always keeps him on the floor, the way he plays defense. And he didn’t settle for a 3-point shot. I talked to him. If he didn’t have a wide-open shot, put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. He did it two or three times where it allowed him not to sit and hope he made the three. He got to the rim, he continued to play defense and that’s why I kept him on the floor. When a guy plays defense the way he does and has the ability to make a shot, he can get some minutes.”

Cheeks’ faith in Caldwell-Pope allowed the Pistons to go with a three-guard rotation without overextending Chauncey Billups and Will Bynum, who played 31 and 38 minutes, respectively.

Playing 17 straight minutes, as Caldwell-Pope did after entering for Billups with five minutes left in the first quarter, was a long way from where the rookie was a year ago when the NBA didn’t appear in his immediate future. Not until the SEC season got rolling in January did he stamp himself as a legitimate early-entry draft candidate. Beal’s NBA success and counsel, he said, helped him make the decision.

“Knowing that not just him, but all my classmates that left after their freshman year were playing in the NBA gave me the confidence to let me know I could make it,” Caldwell-Pope said. “And also, my sophomore year, he was giving me advice on what to do and I took it. He’s a good friend. We kind of grew up together, even though it was different cities.”

With the Pistons, he’s finding a good mentor in Chauncey Billups, 17 years his senior – one year for every one Billups has spent in the NBA. Now he’s passing his lessons on.

“He played really well,” Billups said. “He’s another one who’s been working his behind off. He’s kind of my project. We watch film together. I kind of teach him the game as we practice and we play, in the film room. It was good to see him get going.”

Caldwell-Pope didn’t make a 3-point shot in four attempts, but he scored three baskets in the second quarter, two on strong drives and another layup off a nice feed from Billups. A knifing steal in the third quarter resulted in two foul shots when Beal had to grab him to prevent a breakaway dunk. He popped inside Washington’s defense in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards had whittled a 15-point deficit to seven, to drop another 8-foot jump shot.

“He looked good,” said Greg Monroe said, who remembers not getting off the bench in his first game at The Palace three years earlier. “He played with a good pace, especially for your first game. I remember my first action; it was pretty tough. He handled himself well, he took good shots, he got to the goal and he’s always good on defense. He played well, especially for his first game, because I know that’s hard on any player.”