To Harris’ skill, Pistons add Leuer’s size and Ellenson’s promise at power forward


(Editor’s note: Pistons.com today continues a five-part series looking at the depth chart for the Pistons, position by position. Today: power forward.)

POSITION: Power forward

DEPTH CHART: Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer, Henry Ellenson

IN A PINCH: Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Stanley Johnson

FLEXIBILITY: Harris is just as easy a fit at small forward as at power forward. Leuer gives the Pistons a weapon they didn’t have in their 44-win playoff season, a near 7-footer who can swing to center and give them five perimeter shooting threats. Ellenson, their No. 1 draft pick, eventually projects similarly.

The Pistons ended the season a very different team than they began it. The biggest change was the addition of Tobias Harris at the trade deadline and his insertion into the starting lineup – at power forward.

Harris has always had the body type and skill set to allow him to play either forward position, though he’s spent more time at small forward since coming to the NBA as a 19-year-old in 2011 after a freshman season at Tennessee. At small forward, his back-to-the-basket ability gives him a size advantage over most defenders. At power forward, his quickness and ballhandling allow him to take bigger defenders off the dribble.

In 27 games for the Pistons, Harris averaged 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting .477 overall and .375 from the line. In Harris’ 25 starts, the Pistons were 16-9. They regressed a little defensively but became a more efficient, dynamic offensive team.

Harris was a player the Pistons coveted in free agency 2015, but due to his restricted status it was a pursuit that never got off the ground. Orlando and Harris struck agreement on a reported four-year, $64 million contract before any team had the opportunity to drive up his price even higher with an offer sheet.

When the Pistons traded Brandon Jennings, two months before he was due to hit free agency, and Ersan Ilyasova to Orlando at the trade deadline, Van Gundy said the contract Harris brought with him would be a bargain once the market readjusted in 2016 free agency with a rising salary cap. That became obvious in the opening hours of July 1. Just turning 24 last week, Harris is at an age where improvement is still to be expected.

While Harris certainly figures to play a prominent role for the Pistons in 2016-17, Van Gundy made augmenting the position one of two off-season priorities, backup point guard the other. Specifically, he wanted to add more size at the position. Even with more teams playing stretches of games with smaller, more mobile players at power forward – or using players who are primarily 3-point shooters at that spot – the Pistons, Van Gundy felt, desperately needed size to defend more conventional power forwards. The success Kevin Love had inside in Cleveland’s playoff win over the Pistons left an impression.

That’s a big part of why the Pistons allocated more of their free-agent war chest on Jon Leuer than on anyone else. Leuer comes to the Pistons at 27 off of five NBA seasons – the most recent his best. Van Gundy said Leuer was a player who intrigued him even during his days in Orlando. The Pistons, he said, have tried to trade for him in each of Van Gundy’s first two seasons.

Leuer gave Pistons fans a firsthand glimpse of his potential impact on their roster when Phoenix came to The Palace last season. With the Suns missing center Tyson Chandler and backup Alex Len in foul trouble, Leuer played most of his 38-plus minutes at center and finished with 20 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot. He hit 8 of 13 shots, 2 of 3 from the 3-point line. Having to guard out to the 3-point line, Andre Drummond’s impact was diminished.

Van Gundy said that as he and his front-office staff and scouts analyzed their options, Leuer was the only player who checked off every box: the size to defend bigger players and the foot speed to defend on the perimeter without sacrificing the 3-point shooting last year’s backup power forward, Anthony Tolliver, offered. Leuer is more athletic than perceived – at the 2011 combine, he measured 6-foot-11½ with a 36-inch vertical leap – with a quick first step and the ability to put the ball on the floor to beat defenders closing out too aggressively.

The addition of Leuer gives the Pistons the luxury of allowing No. 1 pick Henry Ellenson to grow into whatever role his ability to contribute dictates. Though not a carbon copy of Leuer – Leuer is the better shooter at this point and more athletic, Ellenson a more skilled ballhandler– Ellenson eventually will give Van Gundy the same type of positional versatility. Ellenson’s perimeter skills will give a master tinkerer like Van Gundy intriguing options going forward, whether he’s at power forward or slides to center against opponents that go with five perimeter shooters in the lineup.