Pistons ready to go small, but embracing the value of big men even in a changed NBA

Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor turns 25 next week and the Pistons feel with increased opportunity he can get back to the type of productivity he flashed as an NBA rookie
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Dwane Casey isn’t ruling out playing small-ball lineups with, perhaps, Jerami Grant or someone else at center if the situation demands it. But Casey is in lockstep with his general manager on the need to field a full complement of centers.

“Troy (Weaver) is right,” Casey said Wednesday, day four of Pistons training camp. “You have to have big guys. Mainly defensively to protect the rim and we have to have a guy who puts pressure on the rim (offensively) with his rolls. We will utilize them in that way.”

Weaver drafted 19-year-old Isaiah Stewart from Washington with the 16th pick, who some have compared to a young Al Horford, then signed veterans Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor in free agency. He’d also traded for Dewayne Dedmon and Tony Bradley, but not with the intent to keep either on the 15-man roster. Dedmon was waived and Bradley traded.

For all the hand-wringing among skeptics about the investment of assets in big men during an era where some teams are minimizing their roles, the Pistons have just 12 percent of their salary cap allotment of $109 million committed to their three centers.

“What he’s saying is you’ve got to have that guy who puts pressure on the rim offensively, a guy who rolls to the basket,” Casey said. “You do have to have a big guy. Plumlee, Okafor, both of those guys can make plays with the basketball. Jahlil has great hands. They’re good guys as far as rolling to the basket. They’re excellent screeners. And defensively, they do a good job of protecting the rim, going vertical, blocking shots.”

Plumlee always has been a good passer, averaging over five assists per 36 minutes in each of the past two seasons and 3.7 for his career, and he’s recognized as one of the best screeners in the NBA while presenting an inviting lob target with his 9-foot-0 reach and 36-inch vertical jump.

Weaver cited some of those qualities as reasons the Pistons targeted him early in free agency, alluding to the impact Plumlee’s presence would have on Killian Hayes, the 19-year-old point guard who counts pick-and-roll aplomb among his best attributes.

“Great anchor offensively,” Weaver said of Plumlee. “He’ll really help our young guys with his passing, with his IQ, with his athleticism.”

Okafor, who turns 25 next week, says he used the extended off-season to reshape his body and he’s drawn positive reviews from teammates and Casey since individual workouts began Dec. 1.

“I worked hard to transform my body, my mind, to be ready for this opportunity,” he said as camp opened.

Okafor, perhaps more visibly than any other NBA big man, has felt the effect of the shift in emphasis since he was the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft and averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30 minutes a game as a rookie. He averaged 8.2 and 8.1 points a game in the past two seasons while playing about 16 minutes a game with New Orleans though not always as part of the rotation.

The Pistons and Okafor feel that he’s at the point in his career – and should benefit from increased opportunity – to get back to his early-career productivity and be able to stay on the floor, thanks to his improved conditioning level, against a wider variety of lineups.

Stewart has been cited by Casey for his IQ and motor, traits that give him a chance despite his tender age and lack of experience to see the floor in some capacity.

Casey will be prepared to put Grant or Sekou Doumbouya at center against teams that move smaller and more athletic players to the middle when attempting to alter the course of a game. But he’s probably not looking to provoke the opposition into downsizing very often, either.

“There’ll be situations we’ll go small because of what we want to do offensively,” he said. But just because the Pistons believe in the value of big men doesn’t mean Casey will abandon his playbook and start dumping the ball inside. That’s not what draws Weaver to legitimate centers as opposed to merely tall players who feel out of place with their back to the basket.

“Sometimes (the impression) is playing big or having a big guy is that we’re going to be a post-up team,” Casey said. “We’re not a post-up team. If we do go in the post, it’ll be with certain players. We’re not going to force it inside.”

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