(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons today continues a five-part series examining the 15-man Pistons roster by position with a look at shooting guards Rodney Stuckey, Khris Middleton and Kim English. Coming Friday: centers.)
Rodney Stuckey missed the first 27 games of his rookie year on a team that judged success by the harshest standard – championship or bust. Yet by the time that 2007-08 season ended, Stuckey was a rotation fixture and a central piece of the franchise’s future.
That was five years and three Pistons coaches ago. But there is a renewed foundation for the belief that Stuckey is ready to justify the optimism in which Joe Dumars and the organization viewed him coming out of that season.
In a 28-game span between groin and toe injuries a year ago, Stuckey played at an All-Star level last season, averaging 18.6 points and 4.1 assists on 49 percent shooting. He accomplished those numbers despite missing all of what little training camp existed, his free agency keeping him out beyond the lifting of the NBA lockout, and playing off the ball at shooting guard almost exclusively for the first time in his career. He also was dogged by a hamstring injury, with all three injuries striking the left side of his body, not a coincidence and almost certainly related to the lack of off-season preparation.
“The stretch he had in February and March, he played at a very, very high level,” Lawrence Frank said. “We started to see what he was capable of doing before that and then he had that great stretch. Now the key is health and all the other things it takes to build upon all those bright spots.”
Whether it was the stable environment that Frank brought to the equation, Stuckey’s comfort level at shooting guard, Frank’s insistence on an attack mentality that suited Stuckey’s strengths, his maturation as a player or, more likely, all of the above, Stuckey goes into the 2012-13 season with his name right there next to Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight’s on the Pistons’ marquee.
And everything Stuckey did over the off-season served to reinforce the organizational belief that the best is yet to come.
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“I thought he had an unbelievable summer,” Frank said of Stuckey, who spent more time at the team’s practice facility than anyone, working with Arnie Kander and assistant coaches Steve Hetzel and Dee Brown while building himself into the best shape of his NBA career, leaner and more toned than ever. “He was someone who was in here every single day. You reap what you sow. You get out of it what you put into it. Rodney continues to put more and more into his game and he’s still a young player at 26.”
Stuckey, for his part, is just as enthusiastic about Frank, buying into Frank’s insistence on responsible defense and appreciating his equal treatment for veterans and young players alike.
“L is defensive minded,” Stuckey said. “He really wants us to focus on defense. He’s like, ‘Look, if you guys get stops, you can pretty much do whatever you want on offense.’ We really enjoyed it. Our mind-set coming into next year is ‘get stops, get stops, get stops.’ He’s straightforward. If you’re the star play or the 12th player or 15th player on the bench, he’s going to get on you. That’s really good.”
The Pistons drafted Brandon Knight in 2011 not because they were actively seeking someone to play the point to accommodate Stuckey’s shift to shooting guard, but because Knight’s unexpected fall to No. 8 made him an irresistible bargain. Once Knight was in the fold, the possibilities of a Stuckey-Knight backcourt became intriguing, a combination that offered the flexibility to allow a coach to exploit the strengths of each player by manipulating matchups.
It helped that Stuckey immediately took to Knight both personally and professionally. The two genuinely enjoy playing alongside each other. While Knight’s embrace of a leadership role is a fit for both his personality and his position, Stuckey also emerged as a team leader instrumental in encouraging players to come to Auburn Hills in the weeks before training camp to further the bonding process that enabled them to turn a 4-20 start to last season into a 21-21 finish. Other than a few quick trips back to his native Seattle, Stuckey only left Auburn Hills to visit Jonas Jerebko in Europe for a week.
“Everything about Stuckey this summer has been very good,” Dumars said. “From his work ethic to his approach to his consistency to his spirit, everything has been really good with Stuck. Stuck is a 26-year-old kid who figured out this summer the amount of work, the pace, the effort you have to put into it. He’s done what he needed to do this summer.”
“Rodney has done everything that could be asked of him this summer to put himself in a position this year to do well,” assistant general manager George David said. “His work at the practice facility, from the week the season ended to now, has us very excited.”
Keeping Stuckey healthy will be more important than ever with Ben Gordon’s trade to Chicago leaving depth at shooting guard in the hands of second-round rookies Khris Middleton and Kim English.
English might be more ready to contribute early, given his age (24 when camp opens) and experience as a four-year college player following a year of prep school. But Middleton, 21 and drafted five spots ahead of English at No. 39, began to show marked improvement from his Summer League showing in the weeks leading up to training camp.
“We really, really valued his ability to shoot the basketball, not just shoot, but his ability to get the shot off quickly, his ability to shoot with range,” said David, who was struck in the summer of 2011 by Middleton’s showing in a scrimmage against Kevin Durant at the NBA scoring star’s camp for top college wing players.
“I’ve seen really good improvement,” Frank said. “Khris was figuring things out in Summer League – the speed of the game, the pace, a lot of things being thrown his way. He has some gifted skills. I really like the improvement we’ve seen from him since Summer League.”
English wowed Dumars and his staff in the predraft process with his maturity and leadership qualities after already being on their radar for his defensive tenacity and spot-up shooting ability. His Summer League performance lent further hope that he could be ready to contribute as a rookie.
“You love his DNA, his makeup, his competitiveness, his extroverted nature,” Frank said. “He can make open shots. Now the challenge for him is defending at this level. In Summer League, he had some very good defensive battles. I like the makeup of all the young guys.”
In a pinch, the Pistons could also squeeze minutes at shooting guard out of veterans Corey Maggette or Austin Daye. But this is Stuckey’s position now, and the man who remains the gold standard for Pistons shooting guards – the guy who drafted Stuckey five years ago – is expecting him to live up to the legacy of great Pistons shooting guards.