Joe Dumars pulled no punches about the state of his roster on draft night last June after spending the eighth pick on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“We are basically desolate at the wing positions,” he said. “It was such a major focus of ours going into this draft. We had to upgrade the wing, athletic, shooting – just don’t have enough wing, long athletes.”
The Pistons knew there were more finished products available to them, but they loved the Georgia native’s high motor, his size at his position, the way he embraced defense, his passion for the game and the potential of his feathery jump shot.
They didn’t anticipate leaning on him so heavily as a rookie, but injuries opened the door for him to the starting lineup after he at first appeared to be the No. 5 guard in a backcourt rotation Maurice Cheeks consistently maintains has room for four. A few weeks ago, it looked like Caldwell-Pope had run headlong into the rookie wall, producing two points, no assists and no rebounds as the Pistons were beaten soundly in road games at Orlando and Washington coming off of Christmas.
But in six games since then – which started with KCP coming off a second-half benching at Washington – he’s played his best basketball of the season, validated by the fact Cheeks has ridden him for 30 minutes a game.
Caldwell-Pope is scoring (11 points a game over that span) with tremendous efficiency, shooting 56 percent overall and 45 percent from the 3-point line with taking 3.3 triples per game. He’s getting his hands on more balls than before, as well, averaging nearly three rebounds a game and recording games of four and three steals.
And that’s what Cheeks is looking for foremost from Caldwell-Pope – activity.
“The energy he plays with, that’s a necessity for him,” he said after Tuesday’s practice with the Pistons in the middle of a five-day break between games. “To be active defensively, not necessarily about him scoring, but getting his hands on balls, rebounding balls, active inside the paint. Shots come and go, but the other parts of the game, they should always be there for you.”
Cheeks recently told Caldwell-Pope to emulate Kyle Singler’s actions within the offense. The Pistons run no plays for either player, yet Singler almost always gets a half-dozen or more shots a game just by willing himself to get open. KCP is also learning from the opponents he guards on things like how best to utilize screens, citing veterans Kyle Korver and Ray Allen.
“I learn from my opponents I’m guarding and also my teammates, like (Rodney) Stuckey and Kyle,” Caldwell-Pope said. “They’re good at coming off screens. I’m watching them and learning how they read defenses and I go out and do it myself.”
Caldwell-Pope had the ball in his hands plenty at Georgia, but the adjustment to learning how to be effective without having the offense designed around him wasn’t a huge one because he’s always been an engaged defender.
“I play defense, so that’s part of my game that I like to do as well,” he said. “I like playing the passing lanes, just guarding people, that’s something I do to get myself going. If I have to get myself going that way, that’ll be fine. It is an adjustment coming from college where I had the ball in my hands most of the time, but the league is different. You’ve got people all on the court who can score the ball. It’s about getting to an open spot and being ready to shoot the ball.”
That’s exactly what he did at a critical moment of the 110-108 win over Phoenix on Sunday. After Phoenix, which had fought from behind all day, finally tied the game at 92 on a Channing Frye triple, Caldwell-Pope drained a 28-footer on the next possession, launching the shot without hesitation when Josh Smith found him after spearing an offensive rebound.
“A shot I would have taken a couple of months ago? Probably not,” he said. “I gained my confidence over a period of time. I’ve just been in the gym practicing and I know I can make that shot. I was wide open. I just took it.”
“He’s doing a good job of just slowing down, slowing his pace down, and he’s figuring out where he needs to be and spots to be successful,” said the Pistons’ other native Georgian, Smith. “Instead of rushing like he did in previous games, he’s knocking it down, taking his time and being the shooter we know he’s capable of being.”
When the Pistons look at areas where they can reasonably expect improvement over the second half of the season, Caldwell-Pope’s play over the past few weeks offers legitimate encouragement.
“It’s just a learning process for him,” Cheeks said. “Every game, he’s probably learning something different. He puts his time in before practice. He’s here at 9, 9:30, gets a nice little 45-minute workout in and tries to transfer that over to a game. Everything he does is new to him. He’s just trying to get better every game.”