Pay It Forward

Pistons vets happy to teach, rookies eager to soak up knowledge

Tayshaun Prince and the Pistons' veterans have been happy to teach Austin Daye and the rookies the tools of the trade.
Allen Einstein/Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
Tayshaun Prince has mused in the past about following Joe Dumars’ career path and running his own team from the front office one day. But if he ever changes course and decides coaching might be his thing, he’ll have an enthusiastic supporter in DaJuan Summers.

Summers has attached himself to Prince’s side during games, which in past seasons would have gotten the Pistons a technical foul for having six players on the court at once. But this season, Prince has missed 32 of the first 41 games, finding himself with a vantage point he hasn’t had since his 2002-03 rookie season: the bench.

Since entering the starting lineup in the postseason that year, famously saving the Pistons by smothering Tracy McGrady and leading them back from a 3-1 deficit in their first-round playoff series, Prince started 577 consecutive regular-season games – and another 118 playoff games – before going down three games into this season with a back injury. Six games into this return, a sore left knee has kept him out for the past few weeks. There’s a chance he’ll be back as soon as Friday, when the Pistons host Indiana, and if not then certainly sometime soon.

Which will leave Summers alone to apply the lessons he’s learned while sitting next to Prince, asking questions, absorbing information and seeing the game in a way he’d never seen it before.

“I sit on the bench and talk to him the whole game,” Summers said. “Just about the game – what this guy is doing, how that guy plays, so much more than that. He’s a student of the game. He’s one of the smartest, most basketball-minded people I’ve ever had the luxury of being around. Just picking his brain has been fun to me. I’m learning more from watching and listening to him.”

Theirs is a story not uncommon in this very different Pistons season, one that injury threatened to ruin but one that’s seen unexpected playing opportunities for the three rookies and lots of voluntary mentoring from the few veterans whose roots date to the early days of the Dumars renaissance.

Summers, Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko took the first step toward making the connection with the veterans – Prince, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Chucky Atkins – just by their earnestness. They show up early, stay late, keep their mouths shut unless asking a question and respect the game and the accomplishments of the veterans so responsible for hanging the NBA 2004 title banner in The Palace rafters.

“It’s a good group of guys we got out of this draft,” Prince said. “They’re special guys. We’ve just got to stay on top of them as we would any rookies, but those guys listen, they move on, they like being coached and they get better each and every day. They’re always here 45 minutes before practice and stay in the gym an hour after practice. That’s what you want out of these guys.”

Daye lifts weights for 15 or 20 minutes after home games with Wallace as his mentor. Jerebko picks Prince’s brain before every game about the tendencies of his defensive matchup that night. All three rookies say they intently study Hamilton for his tricks of the trade in freeing himself for shots through his relentless movement off the ball.

“Sitting next to Tay on the bench definitely helps,” Daye said, though he hasn’t been able to jostle Summers out of that coveted seat just yet. “Rip Hamilton, just the way he controls himself on the court, the way he talks to me on the court and just helps me out. Ben Wallace off the court. He’s trying to get me to lift with him. He’s definitely pushed me to another level.”

“When you play defense and you’re going to play against LeBron and Paul Pierce, I always ask Tay what he thinks I should do,” Jerebko said. “The work ethic and how Body” – the perfectly apt Pistons nickname for Wallace – “plays with the kind of energy he brings, how he works. I look up to him – a big role model. I try to do what he does. And on the court, Rip going off screens and just being a smart player and trying to help where I should be on the court.

“I’m trying to pick everybody’s brain. Chucky – a veteran point guard, been in the league a long time. It’s just good to be around such a good group.”

This sort of synergy doesn’t happen by accident, of course. It’s the result of carefully cultivating an organizational environment that puts winning first and exhibits a low level of tolerance for the selfishness that undermines team goals. Joe Dumars saw too many troubling signs that ran counter to that ethos last season and vowed to bring in solid citizens, both veterans and rookies, over the summer.

“It’s easy for guys to come in and feel comfortable,” Wallace said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. You’ve got a group of veteran guys that have allowed these guys to come in and feel comfortable. Any time you make a situation comfortable for guys, they want to know what you’re doing or how you managed to do this. What do I need to do to get to this level? It makes for a great situation for them and it makes it easier for us because they’re willing to come in and work.”

“It’s hard not to embrace the rookies,” Kuester said. “They’re a great group of guys and they’ve worked hard and (the veterans) respect that. Unfortunately, they’ve had a chance to listen to them too much on the bench – I want them playing.

“Tayshaun has done a really good job of communicating with these young guys while he’s been on the bench. Ben has really taken a number of these guys under his wing. ‘This is what you need to do, this is how you have to be a professional.’ They’ve all benefited.”

It’s a “pay it forward” concept that Prince learned as a rookie himself, when the veterans that Dumars had assembled to help the Pistons take baby steps back toward elite status took him under their collective wing.

“When I first got in the league, I know what those guys meant to me. Michael Curry, Corliss Williamson, Cliff Robinson, Jon Barry – those guys were the veterans when I came in,” he said. “Especially Michael and Corliss, because those guys played the same position and a little bit for Cliff, too. Those guys helped me out. That’s what I try to pass on to these guys.”

Sometimes, he’s passing so much on to Summers that they find themselves a play or two behind the action during games.

“I never asked him – he just decided to come and sit next to me and get a perspective on how I see things. A lot of times, I’m not even seeing what’s going on because something might have happened and I’m explaining it to him for a couple of minutes and we miss things while we’re conversing.”

Summers knows his private tutorial might be soon ending as Prince eases back into the lineup You’d think that might disappoint him on a couple of levels – first, that he won’t have such easy access to Prince’s thoughts; second, that the path to playing time is further blocked.

But surely Joe D would smile at Summers’ appraisal of the prospects of Prince’s return.

“It’ll be great,” he said. “I’m anxious for him to get back out there so I can learn more from watching him play.”

  • Prince and Ben Gordon will again be game-time decisions for Friday’s game with Indiana. The Pistons will be cautious, especially since Portland is due in Saturday for a back-to-back, and Kuester says he’s talked to Prince about how he plans to ease him back into the lineup.

    “I’ve sat down and talked to Tayshaun about how we want to play him and what we want to do,” he said, “but I don’t want to delve into them right now.”

    Prince put himself through two rigorous sessions Wednesday and came out feeling pretty good. He participated in a light practice Thursday and will see how his body responds before determining his status for Friday.

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