Where There’s a Will...

Bynum flourishing again in role as engine of Pistons second unit

Will Bynum
Will Bynum is playing an integral role off the bench for the Pistons.
D. Clarke Evans (NBAE/Getty)
Will Bynum went undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2005 and spent the next winter in the D-League trying desperately to catch the eye of NBA teams. He got a cameo with the Golden State Warriors, but it became clear to him that if he was to realize the dream tattooed on his left forearm – the NBA logo, inked when he was a young Chicago high school player – he would need to go another route.

It was in France, as he joined his new team Maccabi Tel Aviv in the late summer of 2006, where he got some words of advice that stuck with him. They came from a Hall of Fame-bound coach leading his NBA team in the annual international exhibitions David Stern committed to as part of the effort to globalize the game.

“Actually, you know whose words helped me out a lot was Gregg Popovich,” Bynum said. “We played them on the NBA European tour and he told me to go over there and use that time and work every day and win the championship and keep working on your game and when you come back, you’ll be ready. I used those words as encouragement, motivation.”

For a stretch of Wednesday’s Pistons game at San Antonio, Popovich might have wished he’d never had that conversation. Bynum, starting the second when Brandon Jennings couldn’t go out of the locker room with a toe injury, wracked up 16 points and five assists in the second half alone as he tried to rally the Pistons from behind in a well-played 120-110 loss. Popovich eventually was forced to switch defensive ace Kawhi Leonard, a small forward, on to Bynum in an attempt to prevent him from getting to the rim.

“We also put Danny (Green) on him for a while,” Popovich said. “We had Danny playing the point defensively and Kawhi, just to get a little bit bigger, because Bynum was getting to the bucket a little too easily and getting those shots off.”

Bynum’s role as a rotation fixture has been restored since John Loyer took over for Maurice Cheeks. After not playing in the previous two games, Bynum has taken off under Loyer. He’s averaging 11.9 points and 6.0 assists a game and a 3.4:1 assists-to-turnovers ratio while playing more than 22 minutes a game.

“It’s just communication,” Bynum said. “John communicated with me from day one, letting me know exactly what he wanted from me – my time I was going to be coming into the game, so mentally I’m prepared for that. I understand what’s going to happen on a nightly basis. It’s not just up in the air. That’s been great for me.”

There’s no question about the place basketball holds in Bynum’s heart, a passion that Loyer trusts will translate into his best effort every night.

“Will, of course, is a very good pick-and-roll player. Will is pretty much the same guy every night. He brings tremendous energy, can score in the open floor and runs pick and roll. He’s played very, very well for us.”

Putting a scare into a legitimate NBA title contender, as Bynum did at San Antonio, is a long way from hoping to catch their eye in Europe. But Bynum credits his two years playing abroad for transforming him from scorer to point guard. A big part of that development was learning the nuances of running the pick and roll, which is now his NBA calling card.

“I watched a lot of film and I had a Synergy account,” Bynum said. “That’s when Synergy first started, so I was keeping track of what was going on in the NBA.”

He couldn’t help but notice the increasing importance of the pick and roll, which requires a point guard to not only instantly recognize where all five defenders and four teammates are at any given moment but to anticipate the means the defense will employ to attack the pick-and-roll action. It’s like a quarterback who comes to the line of scrimmage and has the freedom to change the play as dictated by his intuition of what the defense’s pre-snap movement portends for the chaos that ensues when the ball is snapped.

“I’m to the level where I kind of see everything,” Bynum said. “Every game, each team is going to have a different coverage. When we play San Antonio, they’re going to send me down every time. It’s different answers for different coverage, me knowing the places I need to get on the court and then what are the options I have after that. All of that comes down to personnel, too. What I do and what Andre (Drummond) does well or what Kyle (Singler) does well and using it to our advantage as a team.”

The Bynum-Drummond combination was one of the revelations of the 2012-13 season when Lawrence Frank essentially constructed a second unit around their pick-and-roll effectiveness. It carved out roles for shooters Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye with Rodney Stuckey’s slashing ability adding another element to what became a potent offensive mix.

The missing link this season has been the consistency of the 3-point shooting the Pistons have used to flank Bynum and Drummond. Charlie Villanueva and Gigi Datome have both struggled, Villanueva shooting 23 percent (9 of 39) in 14 games and Datome 18 percent (6 of 33) in 25 games. Neither has been part of the rotation since early January.

And that’s been a critical missing link, Bynum says.

“I think the most important element is the shooter,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little harder than it has to be because of the personnel. Teams are able to pack the paint, but when you have outside shooting out there, teams can’t pack the paint and it’s easier. The lobs are much easier, everything is there. It’s kind of like, pick your poison.”

Loyer said he’s considered every possible lineup combination, including those involving Villanueva and Datome, but what he’s seeing with the second unit now looks pretty good.

“We looked at all the scenarios,” he said. “Fortunately, our spacing has been very good. Kyle has improved his 3-point shooting, so he’s been a pretty good stretch guy. Rodney Stuckey, in a lot of the spots we have him stretched out. Spacing is important, but also the setups by our guards and our screening has improved. It all goes hand in hand, but those are two quality shooters.”

Even when space seems less than adequate, Bynum and Drummond have a way of completing lobs off of the pick and roll. Some of it is Bynum’s faith in Drummond’s ability to soar above the crowd, not unlike Matthew Stafford’s confidence in Calvin Johnson’s ability to snatch footballs away from defensive backs.

“He can go get it,” Bynum said of Drummond, “but it’s not that easy. If the defense is right there – they know it’s coming – it’s more having to create the opening instead of it just being there automatically. Teams are trying to stop that first, so sometimes it gives me an opening to the basket or gives Kyle a 3-point opportunity or Stuckey getting penetration on the back closeout.”

It’s all those things Will Bynum envisioned when he was playing abroad, poring over Synergy videotape and dreaming of the day he’d have the ball in his hands, running his own NBA team.