Pistons by Position: Small Forward

(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons today concludes a five-part series examining the 15-man Pistons roster by position with a look at small forwards Tayshaun Prince, Corey Maggette and Kyle Singler.)

So durable and reliable has Tayshaun Prince proven over his first 10 NBA seasons, he’s given Joe Dumars the luxury of being able to invest the finite resources a salary-cap era demands in places other than backup small forward.

The Pistons have used a variety of journeymen (Darvin Ham, Mo Evans, Ronald Dupree, Jarvis Hayes) or unproven young players, such as Carlos Delfino, yet to fully win the confidence of their coaches. Once Prince forced his way into the lineup in the 2003 playoffs, shackling Tracy McGrady as the Pistons fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to oust Orlando, he averaged at least 33 minutes a game for nine consecutive seasons. A back injury that was the major factor in Prince missing 33 games in the 2009-10 season aside, he’s missed just seven other games combined over eight seasons.

When push came to shove in closely contested games, whatever minutes the Pistons needed behind Prince in many of those seasons went to Rip Hamilton, who before nagging leg injuries began to cost him chunks of seasons proved a feisty and underrated defender.

But Hamilton is no longer around. Prince, in fact, is the last remaining link to the Goin’ to Work era that saw the Pistons post seven consecutive 50-win seasons and advance at least to the Eastern Conference finals six straight years.

Lawrence Frank – like John Kuester, Michael Curry, Flip Saunders and Larry Brown before him – leaned heavily on Prince a year ago, when Prince posted his usual steady if unspectacular numbers: 12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists, all while being whatever the offense required him to be, scorer, ballhandler, facilitator, decoy.

“Tay was a very, very good player for us last year,” said Frank, who remembers the young Prince from the days Frank’s Nets and Brown’s Pistons were fighting for Eastern Conference supremacy. “He has great versatility. He can do a lot of everything. I always had a deep appreciation for who he was as a player. He’s got a really, really high basketball IQ, really knows and understands the game.”

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“You know what you’re going to get with him year in and year out,” assistant general manager George David said. “We have a team with a lot of players 26 or under. Tayshaun is a guy that for us can provide a lot of stability.”

With the Pistons thick in forwards this season – no fewer than seven of the 17 players expected to report to training camp on Tuesday will be primarily small or power forwards – but a little light in the backcourt, the Pistons might lean on Prince in other ways this season. While they would be unlikely to burden him with the entirety of a point guard’s duties – bringing the ball up the court and defending opposing point guards, for two – Prince’s ability to run an offense gives Frank an option to work around the numbers discrepancy.

But perhaps he won’t have to provide as many minutes this season. Since Prince joined the Pistons as the No. 23 pick in a very weak 2002 NBA draft, small forward has never been as well stocked as it appears to be entering the 2012-13 season.

Corey Maggette has proven himself one of the game’s most aggressive scorers over his 13-year career, averaging 15 points a game last season despite battling a variety of injuries – the most serious a knee injury that required surgery to clean out cartilage – and 20 as recently as two years ago.

Acquired in a June trade that sent Ben Gordon to Charlotte, Maggette gives Frank a dramatically different option at the position behind Prince. At nearly 33, Maggette, given his injury history, isn’t a candidate to play 30 minutes a game, perhaps, but that’s not the role the Pistons expect of him. His well chronicled ability to draw fouls – Maggette has averaged seven free throws a game for his career – will help a team that sometimes endures scoring droughts find other ways to score.

“Corey is a super attacker,” Frank said. “His free throws per minute are at an extremely high level. He’s a legitimate, proven NBA scorer at a high level.”

Such is the depth at small forward that Maggette could be used some at shooting guard, not his natural position, but the way the Pistons structure their offense with Rodney Stuckey attacking from the left side of the court would also suit Maggette’s strengths.

“Corey is a guy I’m really excited to see in a Pistons uniform,” David said. “We have not had in my 16 years a lot of players who bring to the table what Corey brings. He’s a guy who is an extremely aggressive scorer who is one of the strongest bodies at his position in the NBA and a guy who gets to the free-throw line.”

Singler comes to the Pistons as an atypical rookie. At 24, he has a year of professional basketball in the Spanish ACB league, considered the best in Europe, under his belt. After standing out with Alicante, his contract was purchased by Real Madrid, the New York Yankees of Spain, and he continued to impress, on the floor at the end of close games for a team that lost in the decisive fifth game of the league finals to Barcelona.

“Kyle is a guy who finds a way for coaches to have to have him on the floor,” said David, who traveled to Europe twice last season to watch Singler. “It can be Summer League, it can be Real Madrid as an American rookie finishing high-level European games, at Duke. I can remember the Duke coaches saying by the time he got to be a senior, it was impossible to not have him on the floor. He brings so many intangibles to the game.”

Singler was impressive in Summer League, displaying the Prince-like attribute of giving the Pistons whatever they happened to need from game to game. David feels that, like Prince, the Pistons could run their offense through Singler eventually. He continued to stand out in scrimmages at the team’s practice facility in early September as veterans began to filter into town.

“Kyle has a really good confidence, just a good fit,” Frank said. “He understands and embraces who he is and tries to do it every day.”

“At his position,” David said, “we have a lot of different skill sets with the guys we have.”