In Leuer & Smith, Pistons betting they’ve found 2 more young vets ready for next step

Stan Van Gundy says the Pistons accomplished ‘exactly what we wanted to get done’ in free agency by landing Ish Smith and Jon Leuer.
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Stan Van Gundy called his shot about three months before free agency opened. The Pistons weren’t likely to land a big fish in free agency. Their realistic objective, he said, was to make a few moves like last July’s that brought them one of the NBA’s top backup centers, Aron Baynes.

In Ish Smith and Jon Leuer, Van Gundy is likely to say they’re now confident they have one of the league’s top backups at point guard and power forward. Those signings become official today and Van Gundy will introduce them as the newest Pistons at a press conference this afternoon.

Since Van Gundy came to the Pistons in 2014 and instituted a pro scouting department unprecedented in size and scope in the NBA, they’ve been proven right on a series of personnel moves.

They targeted Reggie Jackson, despite the fact he’d never been a full-time starter, on the belief he could become a top-10 point guard – a status Jackson achieved in his first full season as a starter with the Pistons.

They traded for Marcus Morris a year ago after their few free-agency options quickly evaporated on the belief he was ready to handle a greatly expanded role after four seasons spent establishing himself as a legitimate NBA role player with Houston and Phoenix. Morris wound up finishing fifth in the league in total minutes played last season.

They dealt for Tobias Harris – one of the players they identified as a top free-agent candidate in 2015 – at the 2016 trade deadline after determining that the expected escalation of salaries would make Harris a decided bargain. Among the players who agreed to deals similar to or bigger than Harris’ in the past few days: Evan Turner, Timofey Mozgov, Ian Mahinmi, Bismack Biyombo and Kent Bazemore.

The key with virtually all of the players they’ve acquired – Baynes, Jackson, Morris, Harris – is timing. The Pistons feel they caught all of them at a time they’s put themselves in position to flourish with expanded opportunity.

Like Morris, Harris and Jackson – taken 14th, 19th and 24th – Leuer also is a product of the 2011 NBA draft, taken 40th. Smith came out of Wake Forest one year earlier, going undrafted in 2010. Without the guaranteed money that comes with being a first-round pick, both players have had to fight for everything they’ve ever gotten since leaving college.

And both are coming off the best seasons of their careers. Leuer turned 27 in May, Smith 28 only two days ago. The Pistons are getting their prime years.

Leuer averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 19 minutes a game for Phoenix last season, a workload that likely approaches the role Van Gundy has in mind for him in the season ahead.

He essentially replaces Anthony Tolliver in the rotation, but brings more size – Leuer measured 6-foot-11½ with a 36-inch vertical leap at the 2011 combine – and offensive versatility. Van Gundy wanted a player better able to match up with bigger power forwards, recalling the lack of options he had in the playoffs when Kevin Love proved a handful in the post.

Leuer gives him that, but also something else Van Gundy was seeking: a player capable of playing center to give the Pistons five perimeter shooters, something nearly half the teams in the league now feature. Leuer is a career .375 3-point shooter who hit .382 last season when he shot a career-high 110 of them. Eighty percent of Tolliver’s shot attempts were triples; they constituted a little less than 25 percent of Leuer’s attempts last season. Though it’s likely that number will increase in Van Gundy’s offense, Leuer’s ability to make plays off the dribble and his mid-range game will allow the second unit to score in more ways.

He also gives the Pistons the luxury of time to develop No. 1 pick Henry Ellenson, a player who possesses many of the same qualities – including exciting potential to make plays off the dribble and gives the Pistons another candidate to play minutes as a jump-shooting center.

In Smith, the Pistons get a player who started 53 games last season, averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 assists in 32 minutes a game. Van Gundy wanted the second unit to play at a crisper pace last season and Smith absolutely brings that to life. He’s a dynamic pick-and-roll player who figures to mesh well with Baynes and Stanley Johnson, second-unit mainstays. Johnson’s strengths as a transition scorer should be accentuated with Smith racing the ball up court.

Smith played briefly under Van Gundy in Orlando and no doubt remembers his buoyant personality. Morris played with him in Phoenix and endorsed the pursuit of Smith on the eve of free agency.

“I love Ish Smith – that’s my guy,” he said. “He might be the best backup point guard in the league, in my opinion. If we can get him, he would definitely make our team a lot better. On the court and off the court. He’s a great teammate, great dude.”

The Pistons return their starting five intact: Morris, Harris, Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Andre Drummond, who agreed, as expected, to a new contract as a restricted free agent to remain the anchor of the franchise. All are 26 or less, three of them 23 or younger. Johnson, 20, will play starter’s minutes off the bench. Smith and Leuer make that unit significantly stronger going into Van Gundy’s third season.

The Pistons under Van Gundy have done the difficult work of getting themselves off of the lottery treadmill with a series of shrewd moves to add young NBA veterans on career ascents they projected before others. In Jon Leuer and Ish Smith, they’re betting they’ve found two more such precious building blocks.