Pistons by Position: Power Forward

Spot must be earned, but Maxiell won’t be easy to move out of lineup

(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons today continues a five-part series examining the 15-man Pistons roster by position with a look at power forwards Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko.)

Jason Maxiell’s elevation to the starting lineup sparked a dramatic turnaround to the 2011-12 Pistons season. Lawrence Frank is on record with his disdain for the concept of “incumbent starters,” but it’s going to be difficult for anyone to unseat Maxiell despite the apparent depth the Pistons enjoy at power forward.

Maxiell’s statistics don’t often jump out of the box score, but he’s the most physical player on the roster and likely the most assignment sure defensively – at least now that Ben Wallace is no longer around – and, not to be overlooked, he has the profound respect of his teammates and trust of his coaches to do the right thing and give his best effort.

“I think Max is a guy who defines the term ‘strictly business,’ ” said Pistons assistant general manager George David, one of the point men in the scouting and drafting of Maxiell late in the 2005 first round. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maxiell complain about anything since he’s been here. I’ve never seen him complain about minutes, about a matchup situation, about anything. That, as much as anything, has endeared Max to a lot of coaches. When you play a role like Max does and you’re what I would call a low-maintenance guy, it goes a long way.”

Maxiell played a career-high 22.6 minutes a game last season, making 42 starts. The Pistons were 4-19 when Frank moved Maxiell in at power forward next to Greg Monroe. They lost his first start narrowly before finishing at .500 over their final 42 games. He averaged 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds, showing up at camp in good shape and maintaining his conditioning throughout the season, something that had previously been a struggle for him.

Undersized for the position at 6-foot-7, though blessed with long arms that help him compensate, Maxiell has developed a reliable mid-range jump shot. He remains an effective offensive rebounder with a knack for making momentum-changing blocks or put-back dunks – when he’s in peak condition. In early September, he showed up at the team’s practice facility looking as lean and well-conditioned as ever. Maxiell hired a personal chef who fed him a protein-rich diet and, for the first time, he worked out under Joe Abunassar, longtime trainer to teammates Tayshaun Prince, Corey Maggette and Daye.

“No carbs, low-cal, a lot of vegetables,” Maxiell said of his summer fare. “Keeping it real simple. Everything grilled.”

Maxiell even joined Monroe and Villanueva in Orlando for practices in advance of Pistons Summer League games.

“I did it on my own,” he said. “I went down there, practiced with the guys. We had some good practices. It was intense. I didn’t expect that, but it turned out to be good. I felt good at the end of the day. It was a good little vibe we had down there.”

“Max has had a super summer,” Frank said. “His body looks great. He looked great in Summer League practices, looked good in workouts here.”

Jonas Jerebko is another player teammates and coaches love having around. Nobody sticks his nose into the fray more willingly than the 6-foot-10 Swede, who became a fan favorite early in his rookie year for his feistiness. Who can forget Jerebko getting ejected in his first preseason game for tangling with veteran Jamal Magloire or jumping into the starting lineup in his fourth game for injured ironman Tayshaun Prince and holding superstar Vince Carter to 15 points?

“Jonas brings a professional approach every single day to the basketball floor,” David said. “You get an honest effort from him every game, every practice. Jonas is a guy now who has been in the league a few years and has played in Europe, so he’s also a guy we’re counting on to set the right example for our young guys.”

Jerebko, after some initial reluctance to compete in Eurobasket qualifying competition this summer on the heels of his first season post-Achilles tendon recovery, put the Swedish national team on his shoulders in advancing them into next summer’s competition. In eight games, he averaged 20.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting better than 50 percent. Against the best team in Sweden’s pool, Germany, Jerebko had a monster game: 32 points, 10 boards and six assists before cramping up from overexertion – exactly the type of effort Pistons fans have come to expect of him.

“One of the things we’re really proud of with him is he’s on a team that depends on him so much,” David said, “and that’s a different role for Jonas. The idea of leading a team encompasses a lot more than just your basketball play. You’re talking about leading a team, setting an example on and off the court. We’re hoping Jonas also brings that to our team in terms of leading with the influx of young guys we brought in.”

While it’s certainly possible Maxiell and Jerebko will absorb every available minute at power forward barring injury or foul trouble, they will have to compete in training camp with Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye. Both players are going to have to prove to Frank their willingness to scrap and their ability to be solid team defenders, of course, but their offensive flair provides punch a team that sometimes gropes for points could use.

“It should be fierce competition,” Frank said.

Both Villanueva and Daye had washout seasons a year ago, Villanueva’s ruined by a frustrating ankle injury that lingered for two months. Limited by what he could do to maintain his conditioning level while recuperating, Villanueva found a regimen that helped transform his body when strength coach Arnie Kander devised a program for him based on cardio work in the sauna. Over the summer, Villanueva discovered a boxing regimen that furthered his level of conditioning.

“Hopefully, I’ve put the injury-plagued season behind me,” he said “That’s my main concern, just staying healthy. If I stay healthy, everything will take care of itself.”

Daye’s disappointing 2011-12 began by going to Russia during the lockout, where difficulty maintaining a proper diet led to losses in weight and strength he could ill afford. He fell out of the rotation when his shot betrayed him and never regained his confidence. But as with Villanueva, Kander devised a unique training regimen, one based on the simple pushup, that resonated with Daye. He had an outstanding Summer League playing at power forward after spending most of the first three years of his career at small forward with some shooting guard mixed in.

“Austin is a 7-foot, talented, skilled guy,” Frank said. “You’re looking for a set position for him and he’s played them all other than one or five. The focus we want to give him is to play the four. We’ve seen him a great deal at the perimeter spots, but we think his greatest ability can be at the four.

“Like Charlie, he has the ability to be a range-shooting four. Plus, Austin can also block a shot – he’s got good length.”