Summer League checklist topped by gauging Stanley Johnson’s NBA readiness

ORLANDO – Three years ago here, the first glimpse of what Andre Drummond could become shone through the moments that made you remember he was still just 18 years ago. A year ago, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gave then-new Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy the confidence he had a big piece of his answer for the future at shooting guard.

Van Gundy and his cabinet arrived in the city where his reputation as an elite NBA coach was solidified on Monday hoping to get some answers, or at least some insights, into the handful of players who hold varying degrees of importance for the 2015-16 season and beyond.

The Pistons start practicing Wednesday in preparation for the Saturday tipoff of Summer League play. They’ll play five games over seven days, wrapping it up on July 10.

Here are the priority items on Van Gundy’s Summer League checklist:

  • Assess Stanley Johnson’s readiness to contribute as a rookie – The 6-foot-7, 242-pound Johnson sure looks the part. But he’s almost as frightfully young going into Summer League as Drummond was in 2012, hitting 19 only a month ago.

    The Pistons hope to come away from free agency, which opens at midnight tonight, with a bona fide NBA starter to shoulder the heaviest load at small forward next season. But Johnson has every shot to win the backup berth at minimum and – who knows? – perhaps even challenge for the starting spot.

    “If you talk to him right now – and I don’t mind that at all – I’m sure he’s planning on walking in here and making his case to start from day one,” Van Gundy said. “That’s great.”

  • Gauge Spencer Dinwiddie’s progress from his rookie season – Dinwiddie didn’t get the chance to cut his NBA teeth in Summer League last year when he was still getting past January ACL repair. This is a very big summer for him. His ability to run Van Gundy’s half-court offense, push the pace in transition and – here’s a big one – knock down open shots could save the Pistons a 2015-16 roster spot.

    Brandon Jennings’ recovery from January Achilles surgery complicates the equation. The Pistons can’t be certain Jennings will be ready to go come training camp and the regular season. If Dinwiddie shows capable of handling the backup spot behind Reggie Jackson with his Summer League performance, the Pistons probably could afford to do nothing more than invite a free agent to camp on a make-good basis and give themselves the luxury of time to assess Jennings’ state of readiness.

    On the other hand, a so-so Summer League from Dinwiddie might coax Van Gundy into signing another point guard in free agency to serve as insurance at a position where no NBA coach wants to get caught short.

  • See where – and if – Quincy Miller fits – When the Pistons signed Quincy Miller back in February – first to two 10-day contracts and then for the remainder of the season and through 2015 training camp – Van Gundy viewed him more as a stretch four than a small forward. When he got a shot at playing time in the season’s final week, it was at small forward simply due to roster need.

    He’ll play power forward in Orlando with Johnson lined up on the other side. The other two power forwards on the roster headed into free agency, Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver, do the bulk of their scoring from the perimeter, though Ilyasova offers more versatility.

    Miller, who has gained about 20 pounds since the season ended through impressive work in the weight room with strength coach Anthony Harvey, will have to catch Van Gundy’s eye to stick, it stands to reason, or his roster spot could go to a more conventional power forward more capable of guarding in the paint.

  • See if they were right about Darrun Hilliard – The Pistons were both very high on Hilliard, ranking him in their top 25 draft prospects, and yet fairly confident they would land him with the 38th pick. He was not among the invited 60-plus players to the NBA draft combine in May. The Pistons clearly see something in Hilliard apart from the consensus.

    He’ll get plenty of chances to prove them correct in Summer League, where he figures to be the starter at shooting guard. Hilliard shot about 40 percent from the 3-point arc over his final two Villanova seasons, but Wildcats coach Jay Wright says he’s more than just another 3-and-D candidate.

    Hilliard, a four-year college player, could give Van Gundy enough confidence in his ability to help out at two positions – shooting guard and small forward – that the Pistons could afford to sign only one wing player, the presumptive small forward starter, and give themselves roster flexibility headed into the fall.

  • Monitor the other players invited to Summer League. The one with the greatest chance to come out of it with an invitation to training camp might be Adonis Thomas, who spent last season with the Grand Rapids Drive and averaged 18.9 points and shot 37 percent from the 3-point line in the D-League. Van Gundy said Thomas will get significant minutes at the two wing positions.