‘Cornerstone Big’

There’s a reason Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis are two of just three 20-year-olds to be part of USA Basketball’s most wanted list that goes beyond the genetics which blessed them with a rare combination of size and agility.

Let their coaches explain.

“He’s a delightful kid to coach,” Maurice Cheeks said of Drummond a few weeks ago. “He gets better every game. He’s like a sponge. He likes guys to tell him certain things and he goes out and tries to do it. When you get a guy like that – with his size and ability and agility, the way he’s capable of playing – he’s just a joy to coach.”

“The best thing about Anthony is he accepts coaching and most young guys don’t,” New Orleans coach Monty Williams told me before Friday’s matchup of the two wunderkinds to emerge from the 2012 draft. “I think that’s a problem in our league is the ability to accept coaching.”

The most coveted commodity in the NBA, even with the game evolving to place greater emphasis on shooting, remains the athletic young 7-footer who can dominate the boards and protect the rim. Throw in a thirst for greatness and you have the stuff that launches championship eras.

A little more than two years ago, as Drummond – who a few hours after Williams spoke finished up his first career 20-and-20 game, 21 points and 20 rebounds – and Davis were launching their first and only college seasons, there was virtual unanimity among NBA personnel evaluators. They would be the top two picks, in some order, in the June draft. That was based solely on the buzz they generated on the AAU and All-Star circuit, though Drummond was not a 2011 McDonald’s All-American for one simple reason: At the time the game was played, he was supposed to be a member of the 2012 high school graduating class.

Drummond didn’t make the decision to reclassify to the 2011 class until two weeks before classes were to begin at the University of Connecticut that fall, which meant he wasn’t on campus during the summer months – as has become routine for enrolling freshmen – for critical strength and skills development.

That – along with turmoil at UConn that included then-coach Jim Calhoun missing big chunks of the season – almost certainly contributed to Drummond’s lackluster season on a guard-dominated team.

The Pistons will be eternally grateful for the confluence of factors that contributed to Drummond’s head-scratching UConn experience. Scouts didn’t quite know what to make of him, which explains why Charlotte took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist second and not Drummond; why Cleveland took Dion Waiters at No. 4 when they had a need at center; and why Toronto, picking right before the Pistons at No. 8, passed on Drummond in favor of a player projected to go on the fringe or even outside of the lottery, Terrence Ross.

How much brighter would the futures look in Cleveland, Sacramento (which took Thomas Robinson, then traded him for journeymen eight months later), Toronto, Charlotte or elsewhere had the seven teams picking between New Orleans and Detroit been able to see what the Pistons saw in Andre Drummond?

(An aside: The Pistons had long identified Drummond’s skill set as their greatest need – an athletic, shot-blocking, rebounding, rim-protecting big man to pair next to the prize of their 2010 draft, Greg Monroe. They just never expected to get him at No. 9 or wherever their draft slot figured to land as the 2011-12 season rolled by. But in the middle of that season, Pistons assistant general manager George David spent a week tailing Drummond, catching several UConn practices and two games – one in which Drummond was very good, one in which he was nearly invisible, the pattern that gave all those teams picking ahead of the Pistons pause.)

Of all the teams that passed on Drummond, I thing the greatest angst must emanate from Cleveland and Golden State. The Cavs have faint hope of luring LeBron James back home as a free agent, assuming he opts out of his contract on July 1. I think “faint” would read “legitimate” if they could have sold him young stars Kyrie Irving and Andre Drummond on rookie contracts with plenty of cap space to augment the talent base.

And Golden State: Harrison Barnes is a keeper and could even become a relative star. But Drummond in the middle of shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with David Lee and Andre Iguodala doing what they do? Potentially devastating.

Friday didn’t play out the way Drummond or the Pistons wanted, losing a heartbreaker to Davis and the Pelicans. And when seasons take 90 degree turns the way the Pistons’ has over the past month, it’s sometimes tough to see the forest for the trees.

But the Pistons have one of the most coveted commodities in all of the NBA, a 20-year-old with jaw-dropping athletic ability, and that is going to give them great latitude in building a team around him for the next generation.

“He’s just big and fast and athletic and does things most guards can’t do, which is amazing for a guy that size,” Williams told me. But Williams also knows more is required. Just as he has come to appreciate the demeanor of his young star, Davis, for the way it enables him to exploit every ounce of his equally rare athletic ability, Williams glimpsed similar qualities in Drummond.

“I had a chance to interview him in Chicago at the predraft camp and I just liked his personality. Seems like a really cool kid, kind of a free spirit, living live carefree. Steps on the floor and he’s all over the place. Seems like they have a cornerstone big here for a long time.”