Starting Point

KCP’s shown Pistons what they hoped to see with room to grow ahead

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has shown his potential in recent games.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers this year, blame the guys the Pistons took in the lottery ahead of him. The Georgia rookie came to a far different roster than Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond before him did.

The Pistons never anticipated that Caldwell-Pope would play a role as significant as their other recent lottery picks when they drafted him, in part because those other young players had established their value but also because the cap space they took into last summer gave the Pistons the opportunity to further stock the roster.

Their record isn’t what they’d hoped or expected – 26-45 with 11 games to play – but there aren’t nearly as many holes on the roster as before Monroe and Drummond were drafted, Brandon Jennings came in trade at the price of Knight and Josh Smith signed on as a free agent.

Yet the Pistons are no less optimistic for Caldwell-Pope’s future now as when they drafted him last June. Their judgment of his NBA skill set – elite defensive potential, 3-point threat, two-way transition player, high motor – has been validated.

“He’s got a world of potential,” John Loyer said. “Right now, I think he’s a very high-level defender. He’s a very good open-floor player. As he learns the NBA game, continues to work on his shot – and he works very, very hard on his shot – that will be one big aspect. If he’s going to play the two, continually work on his ballhandling skills. He’s got a big future and he’s another guy who loves to play. He’s going to have a big summer getting ready.”

It’s not uncommon for players to take a big step forward between their rookie and second seasons and that could be especially true for Caldwell-Pope. The Pistons felt Caldwell-Pope’s athleticism and motor would allow him to see the court as a rookie and help in very specific areas, but they also understood they were drafting a player who had vast room for growth in other aspects of the game.

And that’s what he’ll focus on over the summer. Sure, he’ll work on his shooting because the ability to knock down 3-pointers from the corners and wings is an invaluable weapon for every NBA perimeter player. But Caldwell-Pope’s athleticism gives him a shot to be much more than just a 3-point shooter.

“I’ll focus on not really my shooting, but on other things I’m weaker at – ballhandling, creating space off the dribble and just finding my shots,” he said.

Caldwell-Pope has games where he isn’t around the ball as much and doesn’t dent the stat sheet, but when he gets in the game and something good happens for him in the first minute or two it often leads to a string of impact plays.

In the opener of the recent four-game Pistons road trip, Caldwell-Pope grabbed nine rebounds in the first half at Denver and helped the Pistons change the game around. In the finale, he scored 13 points against Utah and exhibited his knifing quickness to get inside the defense a few times for easy shots, passing up the 3-pointers he often hurriedly attempted earlier this season.

“He’s got to pick his spots,” Loyer said. “We’ve encouraged him to not live and die by the 3-point line and the last couple of games he’s been looking to one- or two-dribble pullups or attack the rim. You’ve got to shoot open shots when they’re open, but you’ve also got to be aggressive and try to get to the basket.”

After starting 41 consecutive games before going to the bench in early February, Caldwell-Pope is adjusting to needing to make his presence felt in uncertain windows of playing time.

“I’m trying to always stay ready so when my number is called, early or late, I’m just trying to play hard and do what I do,” he said. “I might not play this game. I might play three minutes. I’ve just got to be patient and stay calm and not let it affect me.”

He picks the brains of veterans, Chauncey Billups foremost, for advice on everything from handling the rigors of the 82-game season to the nuances of game-night situations. That’s another thing the Pistons have come to appreciate about Caldwell-Pope: an earnestness that makes him a willing learner and a work ethic and desire to grow.

His raw physical ability makes him a very good on-the-ball defender, but the complexities of team defense sometimes negate his athleticism – slowing him down while he thinks about assignments instead of reacting instinctively.

“He’s still making strides defensively off the ball, from team concepts to bumping rolls to closeouts to getting in there and helping us rebound the ball a little bit,” Loyer said. “But on the ball, he’s been very solid all year.”

If his rookie season hasn’t provided the statistical heft that those of Monroe, Knight and Drummond before him did, the Pistons think Caldwell-Pope’s first year has given him the same solid platform from which to launch a stellar NBA career as those who came before him.