(Editor’s note: Today continues a five-part interview of Dwane Casey with less than two weeks until training camp opens for the 2019-20 Pistons season. He spoke with Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois last week. In Part IV, Casey talks about mainstays Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard.)
KEITH LANGLOIS: OK, now let’s talk about the guys at the top of the roster and the returnees. Blake ended the season with the knee injury and then we know he had a procedure right after the playoffs to get that cleaned up. How did his recovery go and what’s his status?
DWANE CASEY: He’s not where he was at this time last year, physically. He’s back on the court playing. He’s worked his butt off. They’ve been trying to slow him down a little bit just to make sure he didn’t overdo it because he’s such a worker, but he’s back playing and working out. He’s got his routine. He reminds me of Dirk Nowitzki. He’s one of those guys you’ve got to try to keep off of the floor, but we expect him back full speed, 100 percent, no lingering effects of what he went through last spring. The key with us is we have more diversity around him, flexibility around him, other guys who can handle the ball and make plays, which will take some of the pressure off of him of having to carry such a load.
KL: Having Derrick Rose this year, having Reggie Jackson at full strength from day one, can that help alleviate the wear and tear on Blake, especially in close games where you’re going through him all of the time? Maybe you can back off of that a little bit. Maybe he might even play as many minutes as last year but not have quite the same level of stress.
DC: Exactly. There’s a possibility his numbers may be down but still be more productive just because we’re more judicious with his use. I wouldn’t say we’re going to cut his minutes back or anything like that but probably more judicious with his usage rate, of the ball going through him and being a little more creative with the offensive plays without having him touch it every time.
KL: You had a whole year with him, he’s familiar with the players he’ll play most of his minutes with, you’ve got the ability to surround him with new personnel – do you anticipate using him any differently this year other than maybe spreading the load a little more?
DC: Not really. He’s one of the best dribble handoff players in the league. He’s still very, very effective in the post. Transition, he and Andre both are very capable of bringing it down, busting out on the rebound and initiating the break. We’ll use him in those ways, but now that Andre is doing a good job with that Blake doesn’t have to do it as much or quarterback as much with Andre being improved in that area. Blake, his overall, all-around game, has really blossomed where he’s not just a back-to-the-basket post-up player so we want to make sure we utilize that as much as possible.
KL: Last year, whenever we talked about the progress of your young players, you would finish by saying, “And I include Andre in that group. He’s still a young player.” We saw growth from him over the course of last season. In what areas do you want to see him take a next step?
DC: One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision. With him, teams try to go small with a guy 6-7, 6-8, he has the ability and agility and speed and quickness that he can get out there and guard those guys. That gives him an advantage on the other end, where now I’m in a pick-and-roll situation, he’s got a 6-7 five man in front of him, he still can jump hook over him or kick out. That’s the part of his game, he’s doing a much better job with, his decision making. The third thing will be his finishing, finishing around the rim. He’s such a great offensive rebounder that he’s got to be able to finish once he gets it because he does a great job of crashing the boards and dominating the boards.
KL: Let’s circle back to Reggie Jackson for a minute. We’ve talked about his physical status, but last season you acknowledged that he would have the biggest adjustment of all because he would be asked to play a significantly different role in your offense than he’d been asked to play before that. Was part of his second-half surge maybe coming to terms with that adjustment, too?
DC: He did. He had to change his game a lot because he didn’t dominate the ball as much as he had, which is no disrespect or criticism how Stan (Van Gundy) used him at all. We went through the same transition in Toronto with Kyle Lowry. But the addition of Blake and the growth of Blake in being a quarterback and ballhandling, expanding Andre’s role of handling the ball, Reggie got a rhythm and a feel of “if I don’t have it, I’m not standing back here waiting for the outlet pass, I’m running my butt down the floor, getting in the corners,” and I thought that helped free him up for his 3-point shooting, which those numbers went off the charts toward the end of the year. That is what he got comfortable with and got in a rhythm with is playing off of Blake, where earlier in the year he was – other than the physical challenges of getting past the injury and getting back into top condition and full strength – just the understanding of OK, how am I going to score, how am I going to get a shot, how am I going to stay in the shot spectrum with my decision making, how am I going to do that? And he did a heck of a job the second part of the year of growing into that role.
KL: Another guy at the heart of your second-half surge last year was Luke Kennard. Going into his third year now and coming off of a mostly healthy summer, which he didn’t have last year, do you see the possibility of Luke taking another big step?
DC: No question. Third year, I thought he had probably the best playoff run of anybody we had as far as scoring the ball, shooting the ball, played with tremendous confidence. I see Luke having a big year this year, playing with a confidence, run a lot of offense through him with the second unit – first or second, I’m not going to make a total decision right now which way we’re going to go with that. But if he’s with the first unit or the second unit, he does a great job of quarterbacking and pick-and-roll game and if he’s in there with Reggie and Derrick, then he can spot up a little bit more at the three. He’s going to be a Swiss Army Knife for us at the offensive end. He can play a lot of different roles, but his playmaking ability is really the area that’s taken a big step. Staying healthy for Luke, he had some tendinitis this summer in his knee that he’s hopefully getting back 100 percent healthy going into the season. He’s another guy like Reggie that missed a lot of the contact work in training camp and then hurt his shoulder, set him back some. Hopefully this year – knock on wood – he’s ready to go. We need his shooting. He’s one of the best 3-point shooters around.
In Friday’s final segment of Casey’s Q&A, he talks about Bruce Brown and last year’s other rookies, Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk, plus Thon Maker and wraps up with his expectations for the season ahead.