Stan Van Gundy knew he wanted to bring in another point guard in free agency, but his roster demanded the bulk of his resources go to small forward and shooting guard. But point guard was also free agency’s deepest position. It was a buyer’s market, so Van Gundy wound up with one of the bargains of summer in D.J. Augustin, a player on his wish list the way most of us browse the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.
Augustin might have been disappointed by the reported two-year, $6 million contract he wound up signing if it were in his nature – or if he hadn’t experienced a series of career turns already despite still being just 26.
“Anything can happen in free agency or in this business, period,” he said this week inside the Pistons practice facility. “So I had no expectations because it could go either way. I was just happy to be signing with a good organization, a good team and getting the opportunity to play again.”
Augustin spent the first two-plus seasons of his NBA career in relative stability with one coach, Larry Brown, in Charlotte. He was a fixture in the rotation from day one and the Bobcats even made the playoffs in his second season – eliminated in the first round by Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic – with Augustin emerging as a full-time starter after that year. But Brown was fired midway through his third season and Augustin left Charlotte for Indiana after 2011-12 as a free agent.
The Pistons will be his fourth NBA team since leaving Charlotte. He spent one year in a reduced role with Indiana, went to Toronto to start the 2013-14 season and wound up being cut after the Raptors needed roster space when they took back four players from Sacramento in the Rudy Gay trade last fall.
It was where he spent the rest of last season – in Chicago, under Tom Thibodeau – that gives both the Pistons and Augustin confidence their marriage is built on a solid foundation. Just as Thibodeau runs an offensive system heavy on structure, so does Van Gundy. So, for that matter, did Brown when Augustin was in his NBA infancy and appeared headed for bigger things.
“He was tough on me, but after he left and I was away from him, I saw he was only trying to make me better,” Augustin says now of Brown. “Sometimes you can’t listen to how the message is brought to you; just listen to the message. He’s a great coach and a great mentor, but he’s definitely tough on players.”
Augustin relished his time with Thibodeau, crediting the Bulls coach with reinvigorating his career.
“Not only did he give me the opportunity, he actually brought my love for the game back,” he said. “You kind of lose that a little bit, your passion for the game, throughout the years in the NBA depending on playing time and different situations you may be put in. Coach Thibs, I owe him a lot. I give him credit for bringing my passion for the game back and wanting to learn and play hard.”
Augustin gets the same vibe from Van Gundy, a coach from the same school – one who deals honestly and directly with players, known as demanding yet not overbearing.
“He reminds me a lot of (Thibodeau),” Augustin said. “They’re both good coaches. He’s putting us on the right track to be a good team.”
Augustin joins a position group that has perhaps more quality options than any other spot on the roster with incumbent starter Brandon Jennings and Will Bynum both returning and No. 2 pick Spencer Dinwiddie bristling to get medical clearance and join the fray.
“It’s going to be competitive all around,” Augustin said. “We’re only going to push each other and make each other better, make the team better. At the end of the day, we’re all here to do a job and it’s on coach to make the decisions. But we have to push each other and get better and make the team better.”
Augustin shares New Orleans roots with Pistons teammate Greg Monroe. He was two years ahead of him to both college and the NBA, but knew Monroe from their status as elite New Orleans amateur players for rival schools, Helen Cox for Monroe and traditional power Brother Martin for Augustin. Both were displaced to Houston – where Augustin still lives in the off-season – by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Augustin made a recruiting pitch to Monroe to join him at Texas, which didn’t pan out and wouldn’t have made them teammates, anyway, since Augustin left Austin after his sophomore season just as Monroe was stepping onto Georgetown’s campus. He says he’s going to try again with Monroe’s restricted free agency still unsettled.
“I’m going to try to get him,” he grinned. “Yessir.”
His best recruiting pitch will be knocking down shots that give Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith room to operate nearer the rim. He sees the addition of Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin along with him as giving the Pistons a dramatic offensive makeover.
“Big time. You have guys like Greg and Andre down low, Josh can post – having those guys with us around them, the defense can’t really double team those guys and focus on them because they have to get out to us and it spreads the floor and spaces things out.”
Augustin saw firsthand how Drummond can dominate a game late last season in Chicago, when Drummond registered 26 points and 26 rebounds against the Bulls.
“He’s an animal. He’s a beast,” he said. “He’s only going to keep getting better and he has the attitude that he wants to learn. He’s not there yet, so as long as he has that attitude and continues to work hard, he’s going to be one of the best players in the league someday.”
Often dominant big men. A major influx of shooting. A coach who suits his style. It feels right to D.J. Augustin, a situation in which he can thrive. And he’s been knocked back enough over the last few years to know how critical that is to all but the handful of superstars who have situations shaped to suit them.
“Some guys are drafted into the right situation, some guys are traded into the right situation,” he said. “But it’s all about being in that situation for your game and somebody liking you as a player and giving you an opportunity.”