Pistons ‘pit bulls’ Brown, Thomas straining at the leash as rookies

Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown are validating the vision of Ed Stefanski for taking them in the second round of his first draft with the Pistons
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

MEMPHIS – When Ed Stefanski swapped two future second-round picks for the chance to pluck Khyri Thomas 38th last June to come out of draft night with Thomas and Bruce Brown, he cited a need to stock the wing positions as shaping draft strategy.

He was thinking at least as much about the 2019-20 season and beyond as he was about the season looming ahead.

With Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway all under contract for 2018-19 – and Glenn Robinson III added in free agency a week after the Thomas-Brown draft haul was secured – the Pistons arguably have a surplus of wings at present.

And that was OK. You don’t draft anyone in the second round with the idea that they’ll need to play as rookies. There was no clear path to playing time for Thomas and Brown even though Dwane Casey was already calling them a “pair of pit bulls” after seeing them in nothing more than Summer League practices.

They’re blazing one, regardless. Less than halfway through their rookie seasons, Brown is starting and Thomas has inched closer to winning minutes as evidenced by the 20 Casey gave him in the first game of 2019.

“They’re going to be a big part of our future,” Casey said before Wednesday’s 101-94 win at Memphis to cap the four-game road trip. “I thought our front office did a heck of a job finding two second-round picks. They’re athletic, they have an opportunity at the one and the two and now’s the time, if other guys are not playing or hurt or whatever, it’s a great opportunity for them to step in and get minutes.”

Brown has settled in as the fifth starter in what’s been a revolving door. Johnson, Kennard and Robinson have all gotten their turns and all bring something a little different to the equation as Casey looks for compatibility – and consistency – more than anything. What Brown brings is defense, foremost, with his ability to guard multiple positions – including point guard, most notably – freeing Casey to manipulate matchups most favorably.

“It’s really important,” Casey said of Brown’s defensive versatility. “And you don’t have to say ‘giddyup’ to him. “We’ve got to get more people to join his club. Some players, older players, take a little longer. I understand. But if you’re a young guy in this league, it shouldn’t take very long to giddyup and he gets going from the start.”

Casey said “it’s unfair to Khyri and Bruce because they’re similar guys. It’s a little bit different when you have a big guy, a small forward and a point guard (as rookies). Now you can kind of sprinkle them in. But with us, we have so many guys that are the same size, same position, it’s a little more difficult. But we’ll find ways.”

One way, perhaps, is for Brown to get minutes at point guard. Casey gave both Brown and Thomas a turn at the point in the waning minutes of their lopsided loss at Milwaukee. Like Brown, Thomas projects to be a plus defender after he soaks up a little more experience and learns NBA personnel. Offensively, Thomas is a more naturally gifted scorer than Brown at this stage.

“I think he has a good feel for spacing, cutting, moving without the ball,” Casey said. “I think in time he will be a good pick-and-roll player. Just his feel for the game, his basketball IQ is up there as a rookie.”

Brown has shown flashes of an improved 3-point shot, hitting 9 of 27 since missing his first nine attempts. He’s also grown more comfortable picking his spots to attack and – while he’s learning the hard way about the difficulty of scoring over NBA big men – is a good passer and rebounder for a perimeter player.

“He’s a mature young man. He picks up very quickly,” Casey said. “He works with the coaches daily and his growth is on an upward trajectory. He’s going to get better offensively. He’s taken advantage of his opportunity. A lot of times when you get that shot, you let your guard down. He’s trying to run with it. Just trying to find that spot for somebody to take it and hold on to it and Bruce is doing a solid job of that.”

Perhaps a year ahead of schedule, the pit bulls are threatening to go off the leash.

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