AUBURN HILLS – If Stan Van Gundy had prepared a PowerPoint presentation for owner Tom Gores to lay out his vision for an improved Pistons team after last season, it wouldn’t have been long before 3-point shooting popped up.
The Pistons finished 28th in percentage and 26th in attempts last season, well out of character for Van Gundy teams. Some of it was roster construction, some of it was fallout from Reggie Jackson’s injury that dragged the offense down across the board. Without the threat of his pick-and-roll penetration, defenses stayed glued to shooters.
So Van Gundy did what he could with off-season personnel moves via trade (Avery Bradley), free agency (Langston Galloway, Anthony Tolliver, Reggie Bullock) and the draft (Luke Kennard) to diversify the offense.
But for meaningful impact, it was always going to require internal improvement from returning players.
Hello, Tobias Harris.
With Wednesday’s 5 of 9 line from the 3-point arc in the win over Indiana, Harris is now shooting a robust .471 from distance this season. Among players averaging at least three made triples per game, Harris is shooting it better than everyone but Portland’s C.J. McCollum (.524) and Philadelphia’s Robert Covington (.500).
“He’s been shooting it really well,” Van Gundy said after Thursday’s practice. “I just think it’s his whole approach. He’s stepping in, looking for that shot. And he’s a good shooter and he’s put in a lot of time on his shooting, both in the off-season and he comes in every day. He’s religious about getting his shots up. So if he steps in, in rhythm, and shoots ’em, it’s going to go pretty well, I think.”
Harris is not just shooting 3-pointers at a significantly higher rate than ever – his career average is .340 and it was .347 a season ago – but he’s shooting it much more frequently than ever, too. Per 36 minutes, Harris is shooting 6.9 triples, an increase of more than 50 percent from last season’s 4.4 Van Gundy talked to him about converting some of his previous long 2-point attempts to 3-point shots over the summer and to all players about changing their off-season shooting routines to better approximate game conditions.
Harris took it to heart. And the regular reports Van Gundy got from longtime Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone, who frequently supervises Harris’ off-season workouts from his Long Island summer base, were unfailingly positive.
“He’s always been a really hard worker and he always is looking for ways to get better,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got a great routine. Brendan goes out and sees him quite a bit, so Brendan all summer would be telling me, hey, he’s really looking good. He’s a guy who’s willing to put in a lot of time and focuses very well on the things he needs to do. He’s off to a good start.”
Harris is averaging a team-leading 20 points for the 8-3 Pistons, giving him a shot at his first All-Star berth. As teams adjust to Harris’ improved 3-point shooting – and greater willingness to let it fly – he’s going to be presented with even more opportunities to play to a well-established strength, putting the ball on the floor with either hand to get to the rim or hit a mid-range or closer jump shot.
“The main thing with Tobias, there’ll be nights where people try to take that away from him but that just opens up his driving angles,” Van Gundy said. “For all of our guys, shoot them in rhythm without hesitation and then – if people are taking it away – it opens up other things. We’ve tried to make it an emphasis and I think certainly Tobias has been one who’s done a really good job of that. You’re either going to give him that shot or you’re going to have to get up on him and create driving angles for him.”
The Pistons (.367) have risen to above the league average (.359) in 3-point accuracy, ranking 11th. They’re nearly at league average (28.8) in 3-point attempts per game (28.0), good for 17th in the NBA. Harris is at the heart of both jumps.
“He gets more attempts when he’s ready to shoot and people don’t close on him. And he’s got to take those shots,” Van Gundy said. “And he has been taking those shots. When you shoot shots in rhythm, you’re going to shoot a higher percentage.”
Simple logic, tough to pull off. But it’s been beautiful music – string music – so far for Tobias Harris.