Kentavious Caldwell-Pope worked on ballhandling to diversify his offensive game over the summer
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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sat a few feet to Reggie Jackson’s right in the cramped visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden last April, the Pistons’ season having ended with a win over the Knicks minutes earlier, when Jackson pretty much erased any doubt of his intentions for his pending free agency.
“We’re going to be the most athletic backcourt in the league,” Jackson said, nodding his head in Caldwell-Pope’s direction.
“I agree,” Caldwell-Pope said this week as the bulk of Stan Van Gundy’s revamped roster congregated in Auburn Hills for three weeks of informal workouts before the late-September opening of training camp. “I agree. I mean, why not? I think we can do it. The only thing we’ve got to do is continue to work hard and keep our bond.”
Caldwell-Pope’s off-season involved hard work with one specific concentration.
“Ballhandling,” he said. “I made it a focus in all my workouts – working on my handles coming off screens with it, one- or two-dribble pull-ups, making second moves, trying to mix it up and continuing to get better each day.”
Caldwell-Pope began putting the ball on the floor more naturally and aggressively over the final weeks of his second NBA season, making teams pay with a little more frequency for overcommitting on closeouts to the 3-point line. His 3-point percentage ticked up to near the NBA average last season – .345, up from .319 as a rookie – and continuing that ascent will be a component of Caldwell-Pope challenging for an upper-tier spot in the pecking order of Eastern Conference shooting guards.
But diversifying his game by becoming more effective off the dribble would speed the ascent even more.
“I feel like I made a big jump in my ballhandling” over the off-season, Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s not where I want it to be, but it’s good enough where I can do one or two moves and get to my shot or to the rack.”
Caldwell-Pope spent the off-season in his native Georgia, working out under the supervision of Dion Glover, an assistant coach with the Pistons D-League affiliate in Grand Rapids. Ballhandling, weight lifting and spot shooting drills dominated the sessions. He weighs almost exactly the same as when he entered the NBA two years ago – 205 then, 208 now, he says – but added strength and a greater understanding of concepts and personnel have made him a more versatile and capable defender.
“I’ve still got to get better in all aspects,” he said. “To play the game at this level, I’ve got to continue to get better. I’ve got to stay consistent, still work on my ballhandling and I’ve got to become a great defender.”
As one of just three players Stan Van Gundy inherited who remain 16 months later and emerging as a foundational piece, Caldwell-Pope understands part-ownership of the franchise’s fate comes with the territory. He won’t be a talk-first leader, but he’s got the drive and toughness to command the respect of teammates that must be the underpinning for any leadership position.
“I’m ready for the challenge,” he said. “Me, (Andre Drummond) and Reggie, we did stay in contact. We worked out in Orlando a couple of times, me and Reggie. It was just about all of us talking. We’re leaders on the team now, so it’s talking and letting each other know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it and bring that to the team and try to build that chemistry with the new players we have.”
And he expects that he and Jackson can do much to set that tone with aggressive backcourt play, feeding off each other and turning that athleticism Jackson cited into advantages at both ends.
“We do feed off each other a lot,” he said. “Us being athletic, it can make up for a lot of things. We can recover faster, we can get to loose balls and we can run the court together. That would be good for us. I was telling him in Vegas (where the Pistons spent last week engaging in MMA training as a team-bonding experience), ‘I’m going to run with you, so you look up and if you don’t see me, then you know I’m slacking. Every possession, I’m running.’ ”
Maybe they’ll get out of the blocks fast enough to have other teams chasing them all season. As Caldwell-Pope might say, why not?