(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the seven days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Will rookie No. 1 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope earn the right to crack the rotation?)
Ideally, the Pistons want to play Chauncey Billups 20 minutes a night. They want the ball in his hands at big moments. They want to be able to pick their spots for him so all of his experience and veteran wile can be maximized to their benefit.
In part, that plan might hinge on how ready No. 1 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is to play.
If Caldwell-Pope can shoulder 15 to 18 minutes a game at shooting guard and Rodney Stuckey assumes his usual load, then Maurice Cheeks will have wide latitude to use Billups in whatever ways he can best help the Pistons win games. But if the 20-year-old from Georgia needs a little time to acclimate to the NBA – and that should be the expectation, given that he didn’t fully emerge as a first-round prospect until the latter half of his sophomore season – then it figures that Billups is going to have to play most of his minutes at shooting guard.
The Pistons can win that way. Brandon Jennings, penciled in as the starter at point guard, soaks up a lot of minutes. Will Bynum behind him has proven more than capable of handling a regular No. 2 role, and his value to the Pistons was elevated further once he established uncanny pick-and-roll chemistry with Andre Drummond last season.
One thing working in KCP’s favor is the versatility of his game. He’s a guy who can contribute in many ways beyond scoring. His motor, athleticism and mind-set should allow him to hold his own defensively from day one, though once he learns NBA personnel and packs muscle on a sinewy frame he could emerge as an elite wing defender. His college numbers suggest he’ll be a very good rebounder for his position. His speed should make him a factor in transition, as well.
The Pistons go into the season with playoff expectations – not optimism, but full-blown expectations – for the first time in five years, probably. Even though Cheeks wasn’t around for those years, he’s likely mindful that rocky starts quickly eroded that optimism. He’ll be looking to get the Pistons out of the gates more steadily and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he leans more on veterans like Stuckey, Billups, Bynum and Jennings – even Kyle Singler, a natural small forward who spent more time at shooting guard last season than anywhere else – than risk the growing pains of a rookie in games that count.
But Caldwell-Pope has the size, athleticism and shooting range that offer something unique at shooting guard for the Pistons. More than any other contender for backcourt minutes, the rookie will have to earn them. If he does, a few other things fall quickly into place – including the freedom to save Chauncey Billups for the moments that made him Mr. Big Shot.
If Caldwell-Pope can earn a rotation spot, in fact, the Pistons’ interests might be best served if he started at that position. We’ll get to that in Tuesday’s Camp Questions: Can the Pistons strike the right balance between their first and second units?