A healthy Leuer gives Casey and the Pistons another arrow in their quiver
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AUBURN HILLS – It got buried under the weirdness of Saturday’s loss in Philadelphia – the 36 first-half fouls called, the 24-point deficit the Pistons created for themselves, the comeback to within five points with five minutes left – but the Pistons left Wells Fargo Center with one shred of pretty good news.
Jon Leuer, playing meaningful minutes for the first time in a little more than a year, looked a lot like the guy whose tenure with the Pistons started so promisingly – the guy who averaged 11.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 27 minutes a game before the 2017 All-Star break.
That Jon Leuer – a guy who runs the floor, can guard at the rim or on the perimeter, can put the ball on the floor and shoot with high efficiency around the rim and step out to the 3-point line – diversifies Dwane Casey’s frontcourt and adds enviable depth to a big man rotation that starts with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.
Zaza Pachulia has been the automatic No. 3 big man for Casey so far and that probably won’t change with Leuer’s return, given how Casey has come to lean on Pachulia for his smarts and toughness.
“Zaza is such a big part of what we do,” Casey said after Sunday’s practice. “Quarterbacking, being a quasi-point five, point guard along with Ish (Smith) in that second unit. The ball’s humming, the bodies are moving with the second unit and we don’t want to lose that. There’s a way we can ease Jon in there with that group. I was really impressed with the way he played.”
Leuer’s play tailed off slightly after the 2017 All-Star break and then-coach Stan Van Gundy felt it was simply a matter of compiling more minutes to that point than he’d ever played in a full season. Last season was lost for Leuer as he suffered an ankle injury in the eighth game that would eventually require surgery and knock him out for the final 74 games.
He was looking forward to a fully healthy summer to get tuned up for his third season with the Pistons, but an early-August knee injury that required surgery to remove cartilage slowed him. Leuer played briefly in one preseason game and got five minutes in the Oct. 27 loss to Boston with the game already decided, but Casey saw a different Leuer in Friday’s practice before the Pistons traveled to Philadelphia.
“He had a very good practice,” Casey said. “The bounce, the pep in his step that he had, he did a good job. You can just see he’s kind of getting his sea legs under him. He really came in and gave us a boost, gave us some size, some length that we needed inside.”
“Not really playing that many minutes for a whole year, it felt good to just get out there,” Leuer said. “I feel like, especially the last week or so, my legs have really come back and feel like I’m in good playing shape now. It was good to get out there and get some run.”
In the first half of the Philadelphia game, when Andre Drummond and Zaza Pachulia picked up a combined seven fouls trying to slow Joel Embiid on a day the whistles came fast and furious, Leuer managed to have more success than anyone.
“I was trying to front him and just meet him early, push his catches out and try to be as physical as I could with him,” Leuer said. “He had it going at that point. Just don’t let him touch the ball was my main thought process.”
The Pistons, following the NBA trend, eschewed signing a true No. 3 center this season, so Leuer – who’s been primarily a power forward over his eight-year career – fills that role as well as backing up Griffin. And if he’s the guy who first showed up with the Pistons two years ago, that’s an arrow in Dwane Casey’s quiver that figures to come in pretty handy.