Drummond aims to continue trajectory, bolster Pistons at center

One fallout of the waiving of Josh Smith: Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will play together with a traditional small forward, something that's rarely happened in their two-plus seasons as Pistons teammates.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com today concludes a five-part series examining the roster by position as the Pistons prepare for training camp by looking at their centers.)

Stan Van Gundy isn’t about to ask for patience. He knows a fan base that very recently watched their team go to the conference finals six straight times, win one NBA title and come within a whisker of a repeat is weary of hoping that lottery balls bounce their way.

He wouldn’t be asking their patience, in any case, because Van Gundy’s intent is to compete hard, improve daily and shoot for the moon. He’s not wasted a second formulating a lottery strategy since taking over as Pistons coach and president of basketball operations four months ago.

But the truth is that Van Gundy has the luxury of time on his side as he retools the Pistons, granted him by Andre Drummond. At 21 and coming off a stint with the United States national team at the FIBA World Cup, Drummond is on the cusp of stardom.

It didn’t take Van Gundy long to settle on Drummond as the cornerstone of the franchise’s future or to devise a strategy for how to build the Pistons around him. It didn’t hurt that Van Gundy had taken an Orlando team built around a player with a similar profile, Dwight Howard, to the 2009 NBA Finals by surrounding him with a cast of shooters.

POSITION: Center

Depth chart: Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Aaron Gray

Options: Tony Mitchell, Josh Smith

Flexibility: Drummond has the foot speed to guard power forwards, even if he hasn’t had much experience doing so, but the Pistons are unlikely to take him away from the paint. Gray is strictly a center and an inordinately strong one, at that. Monroe is still adjusting to guarding power forwards who step away from the paint, but his intelligence makes him a solid team defender.

The skinny: Drummond began to flash a back-to-the-basket repertoire late last season, showing the confidence to shoot a jump hook with either hand and even growing more comfortable putting the ball on the floor. He enjoyed another strong off-season, spending much of it with the United States national team as it prepared for FIBA World Cup play. He could make the All-Star team at age 21.

Toward that end, the Pistons signed four players in free agency – Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin – who shot a cumulative 40 percent from the 3-point line last season while attempting 45 percent of their shot attempts from that distance.

“I think the hardest thing for a big man to do – and probably even more a young big man – is to operate without space,” Pistons general manager Jeff Bower said. “Now if people have to make decisions on going to double, it could increase the ease of the game for him and give him a little more time to process and make decisions how he’s going to attack the defender that’s playing against him or get to the basket. It may open up more space, it may open up more time, it may allow him to process the possession faster and quicker. It can have an impact in a variety of ways.”

Drummond was eased into the lineup as a rookie by then-coach Lawrence Frank, playing 21 minutes a game and averaging 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds. He shouldered a heavier load in his second season, starting and logging 32 minutes a game in putting up 13.5 points and 13.2 rebounds. The Pistons would be thrilled with incremental improvements in his meat-and-potato strengths – running the floor hard, altering shots, grabbing rebounds and finishing strong – as the other areas of his game begin to develop.

What Van Gundy learned about Drummond shortly after coming to the Pistons is that attitude issues won’t stand in the way of that development.

“Very coachable, very receptive, and that’s a key thing,” he said. “He’s not a guy who thinks he has all the answers. He wants to be coached. He wants to get better. And very team oriented. He’s constantly talking about team goals and winning and he’s not a guy asking about how many touches he’s going to get and all of that. I really think his head is in the right place.”

The Pistons were thrilled for Drummond to get a chance to win a World Cup gold medal, but also well aware of the benefits to them from Drummond coming back a more polished and driven player simply from the experience of playing with the cream of the NBA’s best as teammates.

“It’s a confidence boost for anybody to know that you’re considered at that level to be invited to Team USA,” Van Gundy said. “Then to go out and play on a daily basis in practice and figure out that, yeah, I can compete with these people is another big confidence boost. But also, you go along and play against really good people, it’s not easy. You find out, ‘I can compete, I’m as good as these people, but if I want to be one of the best, I’ve still got to get better.’ When you get both of those things, that’s perfect. And that’s what this whole experience is about for him.”

Perhaps where Drummond will most tangibly benefit from his Team USA affiliation is growing accustomed to defending pick-and-roll sets or dribble handoffs run by point guards with world-class speed in Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving or incredibly inventive scorers in James Harden and Stephen Curry.

“That right there is making me recognize situations and just react,” Drummond said after one of Team USA’s spirited practices in Chicago before he’d earned one of the final 12 roster berths and joined the team in Spain for three invaluable weeks. “You don’t have time to hesitate or you’re going to give up an easy basket or a wide-open shot to somebody.”

Even if Drummond manages to increase his workload this season, the Pistons are still going to need 12 or 14 minutes a game from another center. Greg Monroe figures to get the lion’s share of those minutes. It’s the position he manned almost exclusively for his first three NBA seasons before moving to power forward to accommodate Drummond.

Monroe did the bulk of his scoring early in his career on opportunity baskets and offensive rebounds, but he’s developed strong scoring skills with either hand around the basket and effective dribble moves from the foul line with both his left and right. Monroe is also a solid post defender, making up for what he lacks in explosiveness with positioning and added strength.

Nobody will root the third center, Aaron Gray, out of the post. At 29 with seven NBA seasons and four stops under his belt, Gray was exactly what Van Gundy was looking for in a backup big man. He’s somebody who can be counted on to be ready whenever foul trouble or injury demand more of him, but also a player who’ll understand on those nights he won’t be asked to shed his warmups.

Bower was familiar with Gray, having traded for him during his time as general manager in New Orleans. He remembered a player who understood his role and how to use his strengths to the team’s best advantage.

“We thought he was a young man who was developing and coming into his own as an NBA player who had great size and a willingness to work to get better,” Bower said. “He had one of the highest rebound percentage rates for centers at that time and we were really pleased to find his offensive instincts, as far as how to play with other players and how to be an effective teammate, was a byproduct of his game.”

If Gray is never or rarely called upon to play in games, Van Gundy knows he’ll still play a critical role for the Pistons.

“He’s a tough guy who goes at it hard and he’s a guy who’s going to make it very difficult on Greg and Andre on a daily basis and that’s a big part of it for their development,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy taking apart some second-unit guy. This guy can play. He’s tough and he’s smart and he knows how to defend.”

“We’ve got a good base of size, strength, rebounding and around-the-rim scoring,” Bower said of the team’s center contingent. “I think we’ve got some very good defensive rebounding, some high-percentage rebounders and some young men who can set screens and create opportunities for our guards and throughout other positions.”