Casey’s staff hits the ground running in player development, starting with last 3 No. 1 picks

LAS VEGAS – When Tom Gores tapped Ed Stefanski in May to lead the searches to fill the Pistons front office and coaching staffs, Stefanski prioritized finding a coach first.

It seemed counterintuitive to fans aware that the draft and free agency loomed, but Steanski’s logic was sound. The most immediate help the Pistons – who didn’t have a first-round pick or cap space – could expect would come from the players already on their roster.

He specifically mentioned the last three No. 1 draft picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard and the importance of working with them over the summer.

Fast forward a few weeks from that, at Dwane Casey’s introductory press conference, when Casey echoed Stefanski’s comments about the importance of player development. And now push the hands of the clock ahead again to Casey’s hiring of D.J. Bakker, who comes to Detroit with him from Toronto as player development coach.

To say Bakker hit the ground running understates it.

“I signed my contract on a Friday and flew out to Los Angeles on a Sunday,” Bakker said this week amid practices leading to today’s Summer League opener (7 p.m. EDT vs. Milwaukee, NBA TV). “I got there on a Sunday and was there for about 12 days before coming to Summer League.”

Bakker isn’t focused only on Johnson, Ellenson and Kennard. Casey’s idea of player development extends to the veterans, too, and to that end it’s really about more than just improving skill level to become a better overall player.

“It’s got to start right now so we can get Luke and Henry and Stanley and all the young guys – and even the older guys, Blake (Griffin) and Reggie (Jackson) and Andre (Drummond) – understanding what the offensive system is and then our player development philosophy is based off of how we’re going to play offensively so we’re working on the right shots.”

Put another way, it’s not merely about improving skill – it’s about identifying how each player fits into Casey’s scheme, what skills they need to hone to fill that fit most seamlessly and then staying disciplined to that agenda.

“Who are you as a player and what are your strengths and what do you need to do for your positions and then how do you need to operate within the framework of the team?” is how Sean Sweeney, the Casey assistant who’ll coach the Pistons Summer League entry, described it. “There’s development to play and there’s development to do more and so you want to strike the balance between those two.”

Sweeney comes from Milwaukee and before that was in Brooklyn. In both places, his teams lost to Casey’s in the playoffs. He’s admired the player development in Toronto under Casey.

“I think that’s one of the things from afar that stood out about Toronto and their young guys this past year was they obviously got themselves on the floor, but then as opportunities continued to come they were able to handle those opportunities well.”

Here’s Bakker on what he and other coaches will focus on with Johnson, Ellenson and Kennard over the next few months: