ORLANDO – It was midway through the fourth Pistons practice in less than 48 hours, with both legs and minds fighting off fatigue, when Kyle Singler snapped everyone to full attention.
Breaking out of a five-on-five scrum at one end that blossomed suddenly into a three-on-two transition opportunity out of a turnover, Singler received a pass from Casper Ware at the 3-point line and took a straight path to the basket. He had no angle to the rim over Brandon Knight, and both Vernon Macklin and Khris Middleton were closing fast, but Singler – off of one dribble – took off and threw down a filthy one-handed dunk with Knight on his left shoulder that stopped everyone cold.
“I saw Brandon on the left,” Singler said. “When I jumped, I saw him jump, too. I knew I either had to take it strong or finish with a dunk. When I went up, I got a bump from him and kind of got a boost. I was already up there – so I finished it.”
Singler had only moments ago returned to the court after icing down his eye, which had gotten poked when a defender tried to swipe at the ball from behind. The area around his eye quickly swelled and the white area around his pupil became an angry red. The dunk stood on its own as the most eyebrow-raising moment of Summer League practices; that it came on the heels of being sent to the sidelines wasn’t lost on his teammates.
Moments like those are the little things that earn the respect of coaches and teammates.
“Maybe a little bit,” Singler conceded. “Once you play well in practice or do things, you do gain a little respect from the older guys. Hopefully, it’s not just one thing. Hopefully, it’s things on the defensive end, but you definitely can gain respect from things like that. I was a little upset I got hurt, too, so I was playing with a little bit of an edge.”
Fellow rookie Kim English said the dunk caught him by surprise.
“I didn’t remember him being that athletic,” he said. “We talked about it, Greg (Monroe) and those guys. He said they knew he was. He had a big block yesterday, so he’s definitely sneaky athletic. Super athletic, good defender, a Duke guy. He definitely is true blue and (has) a high basketball IQ.”
The dunk might have been the loudest moment of Singler’s first few days with the Pistons, but it certainly wasn’t the only indication he’s given that he’s ready to carry over the success he experienced in Spain last season to the NBA.
The lockout was the sole motivation he skipped what would have been his NBA rookie season, Singler confirmed, but he believes he returns to the United States a better basketball player than he was when he left.
“The game is definitely different over there,” he said. “The main thing is coming from college to play professionally, just that transition. You’re a professional athlete and you’re getting paid to keep your body in shape and be as good a basketball player as you can be. Just being in that environment made me become a better basketball player.”
Singler didn’t merely tolerate Spanish culture, he embraced it. Perhaps as much as his play on the court, it enabled him to earn the trust of teammates and coaches with not just one ACB franchise but two, first Alicante and then Real Madrid, which came within one win of capturing the league championship with Singler playing a key role.
“When you’re forced out of your comfort zone, you’re able to experience different things and grow and learn as a person,” Singler said. “Living overseas for a year definitely forced me to grow up a little bit and mature as a person.”
Jonas Jerebko, who played two years in Italy, said he was happy to come to the NBA as much for the greater frequency of games as opposed to practices as much as anything. European teams typically play one league game a week – elite teams, like Real Madrid, that qualify for the Euroleague will play one league game and one Euroleague game a week – but practice every non-game day, sometimes twice.
“They weren’t always hard practices, but looking back on it, it was a great experience for me,” Singler said. “Being over there and meeting new people helped me become a better basketball player. It just wasn’t playing basketball the whole time. It was actually neat to experience two different styles from two different coaches. It’s kind of the coaching style that determines the toughness of the practice. But both coaches were kind of fun to play for and I learned a lot. But it wasn’t easy.”
One of the things that attracted the Pistons to Singler coming off of his four-year career at Duke was his decision-making – smart passes, knowing when to shoot, abandoning principles when necessary to address unique situations. He’s shown the ability to score in a variety of ways in Orlando practices – the transition dunk one facet, but also scoring off the dribble, pulling up for mid-range shots or spotting up at the 3-point line. A few possessions after his signature dunk, Singler swished a 3-pointer with a defender closing fast on him.
Minutes at small forward will be precious when the Pistons get to training camp and veterans Tayshaun Prince and newly acquired Corey Maggette join Singler and recent draftee Khris Middleton, with holdover Austin Daye also hoping for a bounce-back season.
Singler is encouraged not only by the individual opportunity, but the future of the franchise.
“I think this team is headed in the right direction,” he said. “Coming on to this team, my role is just to help the team win and become better as a basketball team. We’ve got good pieces and I’m excited for the year.”
Based on a breathtaking dunk in a Summer League practice, it appears Singler could be one of those providing the excitement.