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

Stanley Johnson is one of the players that new player development coach D.J. Bakker has worked with since being hired last month.
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

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:

  • Henry Ellenson – “He’s a very exciting player. When you can get a guy with his length and his size, he has great shooting ability and he has great playmaking ability. He can handle the ball really well for a big. We want to play fast, up-tempo, high-pace offense. Whether he’s handling it to push or if he’s getting the early three, he can pick and pop, he can get to the rim off the bounce, he can attack and draw the kick-out. So he has a number of skill sets that are going to be really good for the open offense we’re going to run.”

  • Luke Kennard – “First thing that I saw with him in his first workout, he is an absolute knock-down shooter. With the offense that we’re looking to run, that’s really exciting for us. First two guys I saw were Henry and Luke, two knock-down shooters, two guys that can handle the ball and make plays. We want Luke to put his imprint on the game a little bit more, be able to focus on pushing the ball if he gets the rebound but playmake, be aggressive, look for his shot. With guys like that, they hit a couple of threes, guys start running ’em off the line, closing out and now he has the ability to put it on the floor and either finish or make a play for somebody else. We really want him to get comfortable with, ‘you’re not just a spot shooter; you can do a lot more than that.’ Very good finisher, very good at putting it on the floor and finding people. We just want to encourage him to be more aggressive. He has a great skill set and I think he could have a big part in the offense, for sure.”

  • Stanley Johnson – “I think he could be better than a league-average shooter. Coach Casey, one of his greatest strengths is giving players confidence and belief in themselves. With shooting, confidence is the most important attribute. More important than form or anything like that, it’s the confidence and the belief that, A, my coach wants me to shoot it and, B, when I shoot it I believe it’s going to go in. The mental part of it is so important and that’s what coach Casey is going to bring for these guys so that they understand it and they feel comfortable in the offense. If Stanley makes a couple of corner threes, he is so strong, he is so physical and he is so athletic that he can turn the corner, get downhill, bump a guy and easily finish at the rim. It’s going to open up the floor a lot more for him and he’s going to be given the green light. Get his feet set, get in the corner, shoot with confidence and shoot with belief. The coaching staff, when he gets a wide-open corner three, we want him to take it and he’s going to know that and he’s going to feel it and I believe those things are going to make him a better than league-average shooter.”