Amid a transition, Pistons lean on high-character veterans to show the way

All the diligence Troy Weaver applied to vetting the character of the rookies he maneuvered to acquire on draft night, the same investigative skills went into making sure he infused the Pistons roster with veterans of similar fiber.

For Weaver didn’t want to merely ensure he had a mix of youth and veterans, he knew for the Pistons to undertake a successful rebuilding – retooling, in Weaver’s parlance – he needed to target the right veterans.

“That’s so important,” Dwane Casey said of the influx of widely admired professionals the Pistons added in November. “When you have a group of young guys, as many new guys as we have, if we didn’t have good veterans and high-character guys, it would be very difficult.”

Casey’s locker room was already blessed with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, two of the most thoroughly respected players over the NBA’s past decade. Not just for their Hall of Fame playing resumes but for the way they’ve persevered through injuries and adversity, Griffin and Rose are shining examples of utter professionalism in every waking endeavor.

To them, Weaver added two other 30-something veterans, Mason Plumlee and Wayne Ellington plus middle-career vets Delon Wright and Jahlil Okafor in addition to Jerami Grant, who in his seventh NBA season after being a second-round pick is verging on stardom – a graphic example of the rewards of patience and industriousness.

Ellington put another one on display in Monday’s game at Miami. Out of the rotation to start the season – Ellington didn’t get off the bench in five of the first six Pistons games this season – he peppered Miami with seven 3-point makes in 11 attempts on Monday to score 24 points. Ellington’s carrying tool is his jump shot, but do you know how hard it is to keep that shot weaponized through long periods of inactivity or inconsistent use? Only hundreds of repetitions in sessions outside of team practices, maintain its potency.

When a rookie sees the work Ellington puts in behind the scenes, it becomes incorporated into his daily routine – and when he sees Ellington accept the uncertain nature of his role despite all that less celebrated overtime work, it becomes part of his makeup.

When Weaver was asked last week about the role of veterans for a franchise that’s acknowledged a reset was in order, the first player he mentioned is the one who’s seen the court least of all.

“Rodney McGruder doesn’t get enough credit for being one of those guys,” he said. “But he’s been tremendous. Tremendous worker, tremendous kid who’s dear to my heart.”

McGruder’s father and Weaver grew up in the same Washington, D.C., neighborhood and McGruder shares a high school alma mater with Weaver, Archbishop Carroll, in the city.

“It’s really cool to see this young man and this great professional – he’s been great with the young guys, as well as Wayne. He’s been an incredible professional. He’s been terrific. Mason has been terrific with the young guys. Wayne shoots every day with Saddiq (Bey), been a tremendous blessing having him here. Mason works with Jahlil and Isaiah (Stewart) all the time. He’s been tremendous. Rodney is with Saben (Lee) and all those young guys. He’s been tremendous.

“Obviously, we had Blake and Derrick here already. Extremely impressed with the veterans. You need some good veterans to help grow the young guys – and they have definitely done their part.”

“The vets, to all of us rookies, have been great,” Stewart said. “Just being there for us, taking us in from day one, showing us the ropes and trying to help us out getting our feet wet in this league. The vets taught us it’s OK to make mistakes. They still make mistakes is what they tell us rooks. Mistakes are going to come, but if you make a mistake just make sure you’re going hard.”

The Pistons have five rookies – 2019 draftee Devidas Sirvydis, who made his NBA debut late in Saturday’s 20-point win at Miami, in addition to the injured Killian Hayes, Stewart, Bey and Lee from the 2020 draft – and nine players 23 or younger. And while Weaver and Casey have often extolled their collective character, they also recognized the need to have examples of how to endure the NBA’s daily turbulence in place for them.

“With young players, you can pick up bad habits really quickly if you don’t have a good example,” Griffin said. “Some fans are all about tanking and playing the young guys as much as possible. Bringing guys along and not giving them too much at one time is very important.”

From Griffin and Rose, Pistons rookies can observe that even players who’ve achieved greatness have to put in their time in the weight room, the training room and the film room. From veteran role players like Ellington and McGruder, they learn the importance of preparing to play 48 minutes – and learning to accept playing zero.

Okafor, who’s been sharing backup minutes with Stewart behind Plumlee, didn’t get in Saturday night’s game. After Sunday’s practice, Casey said, “Great, high-character guy. One night he plays, the other night he doesn’t. Today, out there excited, working hard, really into it.”

And if a veteran – one drafted high in the lottery, no less – responds that way, a rookie will know no other way if and when he finds himself in similar straits.

“Most of the time, guys like that, the veterans would be trying to eat their own,” Casey said. “And our guys, they’re teaching and supporting and cheering and bringing suggestions to the table – everything you want a good veteran to do. We’ve got an excellent group of veterans and high-character guys.”