The Pistons aren’t quite sure how that can happen – they already think Afflalo is an elite perimeter defender – but they’ll take him at his word. Because if the UCLA product proved anything in his first year, it’s that he’ll outwork any deficiency, real or perceived.
“I’m a big fan of the game anyway, from the smaller players to the superstars, but to actually get that experience and get out on the floor and feeling them and understanding how they work and how they think, I’m going to be that much better defensively,” Afflalo said as the Pistons prepared for Friday’s Summer League opener. “It’s the same offensively, but especially defensively because that was one of my main roles last year.”
Joe Dumars and his staff were confident when they made Afflalo the No. 27 pick in the 2007 draft that he was NBA-ready defensively, able to guard everyone from point guards to small forwards. And he didn’t disappoint in a season that saw him step in on opening night as the emergency starter when Rip Hamilton skipped the first two games to attend to the birth of his son.
Now they think Afflalo is ready to ratchet his game up a notch or two on the offensive end, as well.
“I’m a little biased toward Arron,” Pistons coach Michael Curry said. “I don’t think Arron played a bad game for us last year. The biggest difference between now and last year is he knows how to slow down from defense to offense. He plays at such a pace on defense with his activity that he has to learn to slow down offensively and he’s been doing a really good job of that.”
In a Thursday scrimmage with Philadelphia in which Afflalo played about half of the three 10-minute periods, he knocked down 5 of 6 jump shots, two of them from just inside the 3-point line – in fact, Afflalo thought they were 3-pointers and they might have been.
Consistency and range on his jump shot are the areas where Afflalo could most easily make a leap forward. He made 10 of 48 from the 3-point arc as a rookie and shot .411 overall while scoring 3.7 points and grabbing 1.8 rebounds in 12.9 minutes a game over 75 games.
“You have to be more under control offensively, a lot more relaxed,” Afflalo said. “There’s a lot more touch and a lot more feel offensively. I think I’m making that transition now. I’m not so excited. I’m more understanding of how the game is flowing. Defensively, it’s effort, pride and a lot of energy. You have to have that balance if you want to be a two-way player.”
And that’s what Afflalo has always wanted to be. The Pistons asked him to focus on playing shut-down defense in short bursts as a rookie, but they’ve always believed they had more than a niche player in Afflalo.
“People will place stereotypes on you as they see fit, but from the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a complete player,” he said. “I wanted to be the best player on both ends. It just so happened that coming into the NBA, I was more ready defensively than offensively.
“But I don’t see myself as a defensive player. I can go down there and score with the best of them. It just takes time. It’s a different level, better athletes, different system. So I have to learn those things and I’ll be a lot more comfortable with that this year. But I’m also definitely going to maintain and get better defensively. I can only go forward.”
Afflalo’s work ethic, coachability and willingness to sacrifice his numbers and his body have made him a favorite of Curry, who has called Afflalo the “poster boy” for the commitment he wants from players.
“I go back to whenever Rip was out and Arron started, he shot the ball well,” Curry said. “Whenever he was in the rotation, getting consistent minutes every night, I thought he shot well. He didn’t shoot it great from the 3 and I think he’s a better 3-point shooter than the numbers showed. I think he’s going to be fine. I think if his minutes are consistent, his percentage will be consistent.”
Afflalo never seemed overwhelmed by anything in his rookie season, which started at this point one year ago in Las Vegas. But he exudes a greater sense of calm this time around after a long season’s worth of experience under his belt.
“You think you know it all when you get here,” he smiled, thinking back over how much he’s absorbed since then. “And next year will be the same. It’s fun. I love learning. I love getting better. I love showing progression and I think I’m going to do that this year.”
The comfort and familiarity Afflalo feels is evident in areas beyond his jump shot. It also spills over into the leadership role he’s assumed with the Summer League team along with Rodney Stuckey.
“That’s just in my nature to be that way,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a position I volunteered for in high school or college and I don’t think it will be that way in the NBA. It’s just how I’m built as a person. Whether you’re the best player on a team or not, I’m used to leading.
“So this year, I intend to. I intend to in the way I’m supposed to. I’m not going to be trying to yell at veterans or doing things that aren’t meant to be done, but in my own way, whether it’s by example of saying small things or being encouraging or whatever it may be. I’m going to try to lead in that way.”
It’s easier to lead from the front than the rear, when you have an established role, something that fluctuated for him as a rookie. Based on Michael Curry’s endorsements and Arron Afflalo’s determination, it’s a pretty good bet he’ll at least be leading from somewhere in the middle in his second season.