‘I know what Detroit’s about’ – Rodney McGruder embodies Detroit Pistons toughness
Melissa Majchrzak (NBAE/Getty)
When Derrick Rose’s stomach started doing flip-flops with tipoff approaching in Utah the other night, Dwane Casey had news for Rodney McGruder that would have unleashed a flock of butterflies in the stomach of a less substantive man.
McGruder, Casey informed him, would serve as the night’s backup point guard against Utah’s menacing defense.
Casey had already made rookie Saben Lee inactive, trying to preserve as many of the 50 games he’s allowed to play as a two-way player as possible. Frank Jackson was available, but Casey didn’t feel comfortable throwing him into the fray against the Jazz when Jackson, Casey feels, is better suited to playing off the ball.
So enter McGruder, who’s played point guard only sparingly in his five-year NBA career.
“His basketball intellect,” Casey cited as the foremost reason he felt comfortable using the 29-year-old McGruder at an unfamiliar position against one of the NBA’s legitimate title contenders. “He’s one of the smartest players on our team. I knew he could play point guard.”
Casey surely knew McGruder would embrace the challenge, too. He fought his way into the NBA after going undrafted out of Kansas State, playing one year in Europe and two in the G League before cracking the glass in 2016 and winding up a starter for a Miami Heat team that turned a 10-31 start into a 31-10 finish.
“I just felt confident that Rodney could handle it – that he’s been in those situations before – and he did.”
McGruder arrived in a November trade as the salary balance for Luke Kennard with the prize for the Pistons being the No. 19 pick used to add Saddiq Bey. But McGruder was intimately familiar to general manager Troy Weaver, who grew up with McGruder’s father in Washington, D.C. Weaver lauded McGruder last month for his professionalism, calling him, “a tremendous worker, tremendous kid who’s dear to my heart.”
“Troy’s like an uncle to me. Grew up in the same neighborhood,” McGruder said Thursday as the Pistons wrapped up practice in Phoenix. “I’ve known him all my life. That relationship, he’s family. We both want to see each other succeed. I want to see him do great as a GM for this organization and want us to have success as a team. I try to bring anything I can to the organization, whether I’m playing or not.”
McGruder brought life to the Pistons in Tuesday’s loss to the Jazz. Once down 28, the Pistons cut it to four with under two minutes left and had a wide-open three from Delon Wright that would have cut it to one.
“That group that came in in the second half played basketball and they should’ve been rewarded by continuing to play,” Casey said. “(McGruder) has been great. Another reward for him for his professionalism, his leadership, to get out there and get an opportunity to play.”
McGruder wound up playing 16 minutes and finished with five points, three assists, two rebounds and just one turnover. The Pistons won McGruder’s minutes, remarkable considering it was his first time playing point guard all season and doing it against a top-10 defense.
“Just being tuned into the game and communicating,” McGruder said of his mindset. “The point guard is the vocal leader of the group. Just communicating and making sure guys were in the right spots. On defense, as well – communicating and making sure I was in the gaps. I would just say at the point guard position, you have to be the vocal leader.”
It speaks to McGruder’s place within the team that when Draymond Green chided him after Saturday’s game for confronting Golden State teammate Juan Toscano-Anderson over his woofing at Wayne Ellington during the game, Ellington came passionately to McGruder’s defense the following day.
“He’s one of the most hard-working, humble, down-to-earth guys there is in the league,” said Ellington, who also played with McGruder in Miami. “For somebody to attack him like that is very unfair. Rod has never tried to portray or act like a tough guy ever in this league. Rod’s a man of respect like myself. He took offense to whatever the guy was talking to me in the first half. I just laughed it off but it stuck with Rod. As my brother, he took it upon himself to go and take the temperature and that’s what men do – we talk eye to eye or face to face. I appreciate Rod and love him like a brother.”
So those teammates knew that McGruder wasn’t going to shrink from the moment when Casey turned to him in a pinch at Utah.
“I really didn’t get that much of a heads up, but the coaching staff does a tremendous job making sure guys are prepared when their number is called and for any situational position they could possibly be in,” McGruder said. “I just commend the coaching staff. Not only myself but young guys like Saben and Frank when they have to step in. Just keeping everyone engaged and in tune.”
McGruder knows as well as anyone how tenuous job status can be in the NBA, but he was genuinely enthused to come to the Pistons even though he understood the organization was entering a transition phase and prioritizing the development of the nine players on the roster 23 or younger. A student of the NBA, McGruder didn’t need any orientation to appreciate the history of the Bad Boys and the Goin’ to Work championship eras.
“I know what Detroit’s about,” he said. “I know what Troy’s about. Same thing Detroit is about, same thing Landover, Md., is about. I know what Troy’s bringing to this organization, for sure – that’s gritty, tough, competing basketball.”
Knowing that’s what he would provide the Pistons, that’s exactly why Dwane Casey felt comfortable calling on Rodney McGruder as his emergency point guard the other night.