Backup Plan

Jason Maxiell might have been an undersized power forward, but he was a little more than that. He was also a solid emergency center who routinely won the confidence of his coaches for his ability to defend 7-footers in the post.

Even when Andre Drummond missed about two months last season, the Pistons often were able to bypass nominal backup center Slava Kravtsov in the rotation because of Maxiell’s unique ability to adequately defend players a half-foot taller.

They won’t have that security blanket this season, Maxiell signing with Orlando as part of the Pistons’ radical off-season makeover. Which made the hunt for a backup big man with their 15th roster spot all the more critical.

Josh Harrellson will occupy the same spot on the depth chart as Kravtsov did a season ago – No. 3 center, behind Drummond and Greg Monroe – but in effect he’s one big step closer to being thrust into the rotation.

The Pistons have impressive depth at both power forward (Monroe, Josh Smith when he isn’t playing small forward, Jonas Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva) and point guard (Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Will Bynum), which probably means their two inactives on game nights – assuming everyone’s healthy – will be rookies Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva.

But Harrellson could be called upon for significant minutes whenever foul trouble or injury strikes Drummond or Monroe. One of the reasons the Pistons liked Harrellson to fill that spot was their confidence that he would step in without the deer-in-the-headlights look that often accompanies young players with little experience.

“That was part of it,” Pistons assistant general manager George David said. “He brought a lot of things to the table that definitely intrigued us. That’s one of them. He’s also got some very good complementary skill sets to our other frontcourt players. This is a guy that’s still young, that’s still developing as a player. That would be one of a few things that intrigued us with him.”

David saw plenty of Harrelson during Kentucky’s 2010-11 run to the Final Four as he camped out in Lexington frequently. Kentucky practices were his only opportunity to glimpse Enes Kanter, then a freshman lottery prospect waging a losing eligibility battle with the NCAA and barred from playing in games. The Pistons were sufficiently impressed to bring in Harrellson early for a predraft workout and liked him even more.

“Josh is a guy who we’ve spent a lot of time on, both when he was in college, then we brought him in for a draft workout and he did really well, and then as he went into the NBA and had a very good year with the Knicks. As a player clears each hurdle, and then having a chance to meet with him again before we signed him, we just thought he brings a unique skill set to our team that will be valuable with our bigs for his ability to face up and shoot and his ability to rebound. Those are two things that are going to really fit in well with our team.”

Harrellson got flushed out of the league as New York, Houston and Miami chased bigger agendas that didn’t have room for player development, but made the most of it by averaging 22 points and 18 rebounds in winning MVP honors in China’s season that didn’t end until late July. He also spent two months in Puerto Rico after Miami waived him before it was obligated to commit to fully guaranteeing his 2012-13 contract.

“We liked the fact that he kept playing,” David said. “There is a value to guys that just continue to play. Sometimes that gets undervalued, just continuing to play a lot of five on five.”

Harrellson heard from a handful of NBA teams after returning from China, including San Antonio, Indiana and Sacramento. He worked out for the Lakers in addition to the Pistons, whose quick decision to offer Harrellson a contract brought talks with other teams to a close.

“We went through quite a few different options for that position – a lot, actually – over a three- or four-week period,” David said. “We went through quite a bit of guys we considered. Josh was somebody we thought was the best fit for us.”