Pistons by Position Countdown: 3

Pistons punch up small forward with signings of Smith, Datome to add to Singler

(Editor’s note: Third of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Thursday: shooting guards.)

Bouncing back and forth between power forward and small forward might not sound like much, but the reality is there’s probably no greater challenge in going up or down the positional tree by one branch than that one. Tayshaun Prince, when he was asked to play power forward later in his Pistons career, talked about the stark difference of responsibilities a power forward faces in pick-and-roll defense as opposed to the small forward.

In the typical 5-1 pick and roll – the center setting a pick on the opposition point guard – for example, Andre Drummond will be often expected to cut off the point guard’s penetration and then recover to the paint. But while he’s recovering, it’s the responsibility of the defensive power forward to guard the center that set the pick and is now rolling to the basket. If he receives the pass off the pick, then the power forward is suddenly playing post defense against the center.

And given how prevalent the pick and roll has become in the majority of NBA offensive playbooks, that scenario can repeat itself a dozen or more times each game.

No big deal, says Josh Smith, who played both positions – usually on the same night – for most of his nine-year career, all spent with the Atlanta Hawks before signing with the Pistons on the first day of free agency in July.

POSITION: Small Forward

  • Depth chart: Josh Smith, Kyle Singler, Gigi Datome
  • Options: Jonas Jerebko, Rodney Stuckey
  • Flexibility:Just as Greg Monroe is going to spend half or more of his time at center instead of power forward, where he’ll start games, Smith likely will split his time between small and power forward. Singler started at shooting guard much of last season and can also play some power forward. Datome might be a small-ball answer at power forward, as well.
  • The skinny:With Smith probably playing the first six to eight minutes of each half at small forward before bumping up to power forward, there might be enough room in the rotation for both Singler and Datome, with each providing Maurice Cheeks something a little different, based on need.

“I’ve done it before,” he said. “Tayshaun started off at the three position, played it his whole career, and then later on they asked him to play multiple positions. It probably was more challenging to him, but I’ve played both positions before in the league so it shouldn’t be hard for me.”

Smith brings a little of everything with him in his NBA toolbox. He averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocked shots and 1.2 steals a game last season in Atlanta and, at 27, he comes to the Pistons in the thick of his prime.

“We feel like it’s really an excellent time for him to make that transition to a new team and for us to have someone like him coming in,” Joe Dumars said. “We just feel it’s right. It’s the right fit for us.”

While a frontcourt of Smith, Drummond and Greg Monroe gives the Pistons boatloads of size, rim protection, rebounding and scoring potential, the question in the minds of many is if it will it make them too one dimensional and lacking in perimeter shooting.

“The main reason we were so excited to acquire Josh is his talent,” Pistons assistant general manager George David said. “The talent matchup is just as important as the chemistry matchup with that front line. With Josh, from a talent standpoint, we’re in a very good place at the small forward position with him. Working together with Greg and Andre, it’s something you have to let play out a little bit. You’re going to see some things that work really well; you’re going to see some things you tinker with. But the first thing that grabs you is the talent.”

“We are very happy to have him in our lineup,” Dumars said, “with our ability to walk out on the court every night and match up with some of the more athletic and dynamic small forwards in this league. And we’re looking forward to having that type of athlete, that type of defender, that type of scorer, a versatile guy, in the frontcourt for us.”

Because Smith still figures to play a significant number of minutes at power forward – he’ll slide over when one of Drummond or Monroe is on the bench – opportunities for at least one, and very possibly both, of Kyle Singler and Gigi Datome to crack the rotation will be in play.

Datome, especially, can help the Pistons answer the questions about their perimeter shooting. That was the primary reason the Pistons signed him in July after he led his Italian league team to the finals and earned MVP honors. He’s a 40 percent 3-point shooter and a 90 percent foul shooter who, at 6-foot-8, also has a few other things to offer, said David, who scouted him extensively.

“Gigi is somebody who can shoot the basketball and he can finish at the rim and he does both of those things well,” he said. “I think he’s an underrated passer, probably a better passer than people notice watching him play in Europe. If Gigi just does what he does well, I think he’ll have a very good transition into the NBA for us.”

Datome has long arms and huge hands that enable to him to score in creative ways around the basket, David said, changing his shot to avoid having it blocked. New point guard Brandon Jennings was a teammate of Datome’s during his one season in Italy when both young players struggled to see playing time. Jennings, too, says it’s wrong to label Datome just a shooter.

“Gigi was very athletic,” Jennings said. “And he could always shoot it. Wow, could he shoot it. Me and him sat on the bench together. Very good guy.”

Dumars acknowledges that the transition from Europe to the NBA always presents some unknowns, but thinks Datome’s resume argues in his favor.

“This is not some 18- or 19-year-old kid coming over,” he said. “This is a 25-year-old young man who’s played a lot of big-time basketball. We think not only will he make the transition, it’s going to be a good fit for him to play with us. With the type of frontcourt people we have and the type of guards we have now, it’s a good fit for him. We need to be able to stretch the floor and he can do that. Guys like that can really be beneficial to your team when you have size up front that people have to respect and creative guards. He’s kind of got it on both ends – the bigs and the guards who can create for him.”

Anybody who interpreted the signings of Smith and Datome as ominous for Singler misread the Pistons’ intent. Singler endeared himself to last year’s coaching staff, earning their trust to step into the starting lineup in the season’s ninth game and never leaving, shuttling from shooting guard – a position he’d never played – to small forward after Prince was traded. He also won over the front office.

“You cannot underestimate guys like Kyle Singler,” Dumars said. “We appreciate Kyle Singler. We don’t take for granted what he does. It’s imperative to have the Kyle Singlers on your team and playing for you because they’re going to help you win. It’s interesting. Talking to the new coaching staff, just over the last few weeks of watching him come in and work out, all of them are getting to see him up close for the first time and all of them have commented about his size, the way he moves and his professionalism, the way he carries himself. And I said, ‘You guys are going to love this guy.’ He’s much appreciated in here.”

There seems to be a public perception that Singler, though coming off his NBA rookie season, is a finished product, perhaps because he spent four years at Duke playing nationally televised games virtually every other night. The Pistons see natural growth ahead for one of their most diligent and focused players.

“We still see a tremendous amount of growth with Kyle and we see him developing before our eyes this summer,” David said. “I know in watching Kyle as a college player and even before that, Kyle’s game always rose to the level of talent of the players around him. The better the team around Kyle, his game rose to that. I see the same thing with him as an NBA player. To put a limitation or to put a ceiling on what Kyle can and can’t do would be wrong.”