Will Bynum got a chance to observe Luigi “Gigi” Datome work out before the Pistons introduced their two free-agent acquisitions Monday afternoon. As someone who also had to prove his NBA chops by playing internationally, Bynum has a pretty good handle on what it takes to make the leap across the pond successfully.
“He can play,” Bynum said. “He understands the game. He’s going to be able to keep up. He’s going to have to get used to playing at a certain speed and how spaced the court is, but if you can shoot it in this league, there’s always going to be a spot for you. He’s 6-0, he can shoot it, put it on the floor and he’s tough, too. He’s got an edge about him. I was watching him shoot. He can shoot it – easy, too.”
Datome, 25, is a 10-year pro in Italy who was eligible to sign with any NBA team as a free agent because he’d never been drafted. His play over the last two seasons took a marked leap, culminating in an MVP 2012-13 season when he averaged 16.7 points and 5.7 rebounds and carried Virtus Roma to the league championship series. He shot 40 percent from the 3-point line, nearly 50 percent overall and better than 90 percent at the foul line.
Datome suddenly became the most coveted European free agent with San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee and Boston among others reportedly in pursuit in addition to the Pistons.
“I think the last 10 years, last five years with Rome, helped me to be a better player, for sure, but also to be a better man,” Datome said. “I’m so happy and so satisfied of this moment and this call from the Detroit Pistons. … I’m realizing day by day, step by step, what it means for me to come to the NBA to be a Piston. It’s an honor for me to be chosen by ex-players like president (Joe) Dumars and coach Maurice Cheeks. I can’t wait to start, can’t wait to join my teammates and start practicing.”
Datome, nearly 6-foot-9, comes to the NBA listed as small forward. But Dumars spoke last week, after the Pistons signed Josh Smith, about the NBA becoming more and more a “position-less league” where coaches are more willing to throw any five compatible players on the floor. What Datome brings, more than anything, is great shooting ability and size on the perimeter, qualities Dumars prioritized for the off-season for general purposes but also to maximize opportunities for Andre Drummond and Smith to flex their athleticism near the rim.
“I think that’s the reason why they signed me,” Datome said. “They have this big center, very good players. They need the defense to make a choice – guard the shooter or guard the paint.”
With more than two months before training camp opens and Dumars public in his intention to continue shaping the roster, it’s tough to say how Cheeks might use Datome. But it stands to reason that Smith, even though he’ll likely be the starter at small forward, will play significant minutes at power forward, as well. There appears to be an opening for someone to grab 20-plus minutes a game at small forward where Datome will join second-year holdovers Kyle Singler and Khris Middleton in the fray.
An Italian league team executive scouting the Orlando Summer League who requested anonymity told me last week that Datome is more than just a shooter, though he said as a shooter he ranked Datome ahead of countryman Danilo Gallinari, one of the NBA’s best snipers. He also said Datome could run and jump and used screens exceptionally well. He also said he had “no fear.”
Datome repeatedly said he was “curious” about how his NBA journey would unfold but just as often said he didn’t fear the challenge.
“I think I’m going to fit very good with American culture and I’m also going to fit good with NBA game,” he said. “I’m not really scared. I’m just curious. I knew there maybe will be some difficulties for me, but I’m not scared, for sure. I’m curious.”
Datome will be a centerpiece for the Italian national team in Eurobasket competition later this summer. (Pistons teammates Jonas Jerebko and Slava Kravtsov will represent their countries, Sweden and Ukraine, as well.) With Gallinari recovering from a torn ACL, Datome – expected to be named team captain – will join San Antonio’s Mario Belinelli and New York’s Andrea Bargnani as the nation’s three NBA representatives. Their successful integration into the NBA gives Datome insight into making the conversion.
“I talked to Belinelli and Bargnani called me to tell me congratulations,” he said. “They told me it was a good choice for me, Detroit. They told me a lot of stuff, inside the basketball court and outside the basketball court. With the national team, I will ask a lot of things maybe that can help me to make this jump.”
By the time Eurobasket play wraps up and Datome heads back to Detroit, the roster might be more settled. Regardless of what it looks like, though, the Pistons made it clear to Datome that they had a role in mind for him in the 2013-14 season.
“I know maybe I will need some time to adapt my game for the NBA game,” he said, “but I know that I have veteran players who can help me. I think basketball here is a great level, but basketball is kind of common language. I think they choose me because they think I’m a good player.”