As camp tips off, a smattering of random thoughts and expectations for the season ahead
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After today, the 18 healthy players – Brandon Jennings, the 19th, is still working on his Achilles rehab and easing into basketball activity – in Stan Van Gundy’s second Pistons training camp will define the agenda and write their own stories.
But until the evidence of their summer work plays out, until Van Gundy gets enough of a sample size to come to conclusions about playing time and a starting lineup and most effective player combinations and the cutoff point of his rotation, we have only educated guesses to make.
These aren’t predictions. These are expectations based on everything gleaned over a comprehensive summer of work put in by players, coaches and support staff.
- Reggie Jackson is going to have a big year. He’s 100 times more at ease than when he got here from Oklahoma City last February. Let’s clarify: At ease as in confident and comfortable with his role to run the offense and be the team’s dominant voice, not as in he got paid and now it’s time to coast. Hate to project stats, but I wouldn’t argue with 17 points and nine assists and solid to very good shooting numbers. A common refrain from newcomers to the Pistons who knew about Jackson from his OKC days is something like “I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.” He’ll have to deal with the weight of expectations after getting a big payday and that sometimes takes an early toll. But the Pistons feel good about hitching their wagon to Reggie Jackson’s star based on everything they know about him.
- Andre Drummond is still really young and it’s critical to keep that in mind. He’s due for a big year, too, but he’s 22 to Jackson’s 25 and – naturally – he’s got farther to go. Stan Van Gundy has really emphasized to him the importance of becoming the anchor of the team’s defense – just as Jackson is the bellwether offensively – and said at Monday’s media day he has the stuff to lead the NBA in both rebounding and blocked shots someday. One psychological factor in play here is the absence of Greg Monroe and how that affects Drummond. His team really can’t afford his early foul trouble or sluggish nights now and he, like Jackson, has spent the summer preparing himself for not only the prominence of his role but a leadership role, as well.
- Nothing fans fan interest quite like the next big thing and Stanley Johnson could be a really, really big thing. Veterans are almost universally skeptical about hot shots – they adopt a definitive “show me” stance when it comes to rookies – but Johnson is already evoking some whistles and tongue wagging among veteran teammates. I’d bet he finds a way to squeeze 20 minutes a game out of Van Gundy right from jump street and it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up getting starter’s minutes – whether he starts or not. There are other rookies on teams with major rebuilding to do who have a clearer path to playing time and the stats that come with it, but he’s going to be one of the stars of what could very well be a remarkable rookie class – one of the underrated storylines of the NBA season, I’m guessing, all these dazzling rookies.
- Lots of interesting chemistry issues bubbling to the surface in a positive way. Drummond and Jackson, perhaps most prominently. They almost immediately displayed a terrific feel for each other in running the pick and roll after Jackson’s mid-season arrival last winter and that will be the backbone of Van Gundy’s offense going forward. Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are open about becoming the league’s most athletic and among its elite backcourts. Here’s another combination that could have forceful impact: Caldwell-Pope and Johnson as a hell-raising defensive wing combination. And – this too – a ferocious pair of lane-filling flyers in transition.
- When and if Brandon Jennings rounds into peak form, coming off his Achilles tendon surgery, the Pistons could rank as one of the deepest and most versatile teams in the East. Even before Jennings returns, though, I see the bench becoming one of this team’s prime assets. Jodie Meeks and Anthony Tolliver give the bench a pair of great 3-point snipers. Aron Baynes will make his mark in many ways – setting great screens to free those shooters, knocking down mid-range jump shots and making the type of hustle plays that riles everyone’s competitive juices. The Steve Blake acquisition was one of the summer’s most overlooked. He’ll help the Pistons win games in fourth quarters. And then there’s Johnson – assuming he doesn’t win a starting job, which is far from a sure thing – doing whatever needs doing to help grease the wheels.
- One more thing about Baynes: He’s got the ingredients to become a quick fan favorite here, in a tradition that goes back to Crash Mengelt and Ron Lee and continued on through guys like Dennis Rodman, Jon Barry and Jonas Jerebko. Fans everywhere love players who point to floor burns as badges of honor, of course, but nowhere more than Detroit. Baynes also has a little bit of Bill Laimbeer in him, perhaps, as a brawny guy with surprising finesse who’s not afraid to inflict a little pain if the situation calls for it. That Aussie accent won’t hurt his appeal, either.
- Don’t see an opening, barring a long-term injury or two, for Darrun Hilliard to get much in the way of playing time this season. Good chance he’s in street clothes, inactive, for many games or in Grand Rapids playing for the D-League Drive for stretches here and there. But I’ll be surprised if he’s not a second-round find and develop into a crafty and consistent scoring threat over the course of his career. He reminds me a little of Khris Middleton going into his rookie season. Time in the weight room, a few laps around the league to learn personnel and how he can find his way and this is going to be an interesting guy to follow.
- Don’t have an idea of how Marcus Morris has gone about his business in the past, but there’s a firm set to his jaw and an air of wanting badly to prove himself as a player greater than the track record and reputation he brings to Detroit with him. He’s shown flashes over his first four years in the NBA and he came out of Kansas with the expectation of developing into a very good scorer and all-around player. This could be a case of the Pistons getting a guy at just the right time in his career, not unlike so many of the players who made up the Goin’ to Work Pistons – Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, for example, who established themselves as premier players at their positions at about the same stage of their careers as Morris is at now.
- Ersan Ilyasova has had stretches where he looks like a fringe All-Star and other periods where he’s been on the fringe of Milwaukee’s rotation. But as he told me last week, playing for six coaches in seven seasons and with a rotating cast of teammates and having his roles changed with each team identity transformation wasn’t easy. If there’s a case of a player meeting a coach and system that plays to his strengths, it’s Ilyasova in Van Gundy’s offense. Nagging injuries have been another issue that have knocked Ilyasova back of late, but if he stays healthy his numbers are going to come in at the upper end of his career norms.
- One last thing: Baynes, Morris, Ilyasova – there’s a little bit of an edge to all of them. Blake is as feisty as they come. Johnson, even at 19, raises the competitive level of everything from post-practice two-on-two matches on up. Winning games in fourth quarters is partly about the chemistry that only comes over time and knowing the preferences and tendencies of teammates, but partly, too, about hating to lose. The makeover Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower gave the roster this summer infused it with a dose of competitive juice the Pistons haven’t seen since the last golden era in franchise history, the team that ran off seven straight 50-win seasons and got to six straight Eastern Conference finals. That wasn’t all that long ago – but it seems like forever to a fan base that became accustomed to NBA seasons stretching into late May and spilling over into June. Maybe we’re a step closer to that again.