Pistons No. 1 picks Ellenson, Johnson likely to stick to one spot this season, SVG says

Keith Langlois
Oct 7, 2017 12:24 PM ET

Henry Ellenson draws confidence from the success he had in contributing to early-season Pistons wins. (Credit: Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images)

DETROIT – Stan Van Gundy adopts a “less is more” posture with his precocious young players.

Henry Ellenson has the skill set to present quandaries to opposing defenses as a perimeter-oriented center, but he’s going to focus on mastering the nuances of power forward for the time being.

It’s much the same with Stanley Johnson. Valued for his ability to defend multiple positions as much as anything else, Johnson isn’t going to dabble much at power forward for the foreseeable future.

There are slightly different reasons for Van Gundy’s thinking with his 2015 and ’16 first-rounders, but one common element. He’d like both to flourish at one position before branching out to better exploit their skill sets in advantageous matchups.

“We’ve talked about (Ellenson at center),” Van Gundy said. “I think Henry could play there, but right now Henry’s playing at a pretty high confidence level. We don’t want to add confusion to him as a young guy. We tried to limit him playing two spots. He and Jon (Leuer) can play together and he could guard the five; that’d be fine, but can still play the four (on offense) and not be confused.”

That’s exactly what happened in Friday’s 109-87 rout of Atlanta in the second preseason game – Leuer started at center and Ellenson played 17 minutes at power forward offensively. When Ellenson played next to Leuer, he guarded centers; when he played next to Eric Moreland, he guarded power forwards. There are different responsibilities in coverages for each position; Van Gundy doesn’t want to add the same layer of complexity for Ellenson on offense and risk disrupting the roll he’s on at that end. Ellenson is averaging 13 points in two preseason games after Friday’s 16-point outing on 6 of 9 shooting, including 2 of 4 from the 3-point arc.

“Not that he can’t handle it mentally,” Van Gundy said. “It’s just that he’s playing at a high confidence level right now. We want him to continue to do that. We’re not looking to confuse him right now.”

Avoiding confusion factors into Van Gundy’s thinking with Johnson, too, who over his first two years split his time over small forward and shooting guard. While Johnson’s future might well be at power forward, he isn’t likely to get much time there this season – with one caveat.

“I don’t think so. Not because he can’t do it; it’s just (power forward) is probably our deepest position,” said Van Gundy, who in addition to Ellenson and Leuer also has Anthony Tolliver – whose preseason debut Friday was also outstanding with 13 points in 17 minutes – and presumptive starter Tobias Harris at that spot. “We just really don’t have a need for another four. There may be some defensive things late in the game where teams go small where we could go small with him, but we’ve got enough stuff we can run without having him have to spend a lot of time there.”

In other words, if the Pistons are protecting a lead in the final minutes and the opposition puts a shooter at power forward to spread the floor, Johnson would wind up defending that spot and nominally playing power forward in the offense. But the Pistons wouldn’t be running their conventional offense in those circumstances, so Johnson wouldn’t have to know the playbook thoroughly at that spot.

“We would probably at that point be running pick and rolls,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not going to confuse him and have him having to work and know all the sets at the four. It would be a defensive thing late in the game more than likely.”

There aren’t the same concerns with the most recent No. 1 draft pick, Luke Kennard. He’ll play both shooting guard and small forward, but that doesn’t represent any inconsistency in Van Gundy’s thought process. In his offensive system – and that of most NBA coaches – shooting guards and small forwards essentially do the same things on opposite sides of the floor.

“All of the two and three are interchangeable,” Van Gundy said. “There’s certainly a lot of situations in today’s game where you can play three guards together. That’s not hard.”

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