At wing positions, Pistons bring firepower to surround Jackson, Drummond

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been the best player so far in Pistons camp, Stan Van Gundy said.
Ned Dishman (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Between the draft, the trade market, good health and the benefit of experience and maturity, the Pistons appear to have taken a major step forward at two critical positions over a season ago.

Drafting Stanley Johnson, trading for Marcus Morris, getting a fully healthy Jodie Meeks back and benefiting from the growing pains Kentavious Caldwell-Pope endured while playing extended minutes in Meeks’ absence a year ago has transformed the Pistons at small forward and shooting guard.

That was the overriding takeaway from Saturday’s first public glimpse of Stan Van Gundy’s second Pistons edition.

“Pope has been the best player in camp,” Van Gundy said after the free public scrimmage held at The Palace on Saturday before a crowd of about 6,000 fans. “What you saw today is what he’s done in camp. He’s been the best player. I thought Marcus was great today. Those four guys, there were some good things there.”

Morris, who had his right big toenail ripped off to cut short his day – one of a number of minor injuries that caused Van Gundy to call off the scrimmage 36 seconds early – scored 11 points in the first of three 12-minute quarters and did it in a variety of ways. He scored in the post, at the foul line, from the 3-point arc and in transition – exactly the type of versatile scoring the Pistons were hoping he’d bring them.

“Marcus has brought us great competitiveness,” Van Gundy said. “He’s the only guy who really has had to play a lot of positions. There’s a big difference with us playing the wing and the four and he’s going back and forth, plus being new, so he had been trying to find himself. We made a conscious effort in the scrimmage to really get him involved and go to his strengths and I think we saw what he can do. That was really good for him.”

Johnson made some flash plays – knocked down his first 3-pointer, got his hands on several passes defensively and scored on an and-one drive that was the highlight-reel play of the scrimmage – but overall had what Van Gundy said was his worst day of camp. Even in that, he saw good things.

“He’s been very, very good. Was not good today. What I told him afterward, the thing I really liked – especially for a young guy – is he’d had such a good week, then I thought he played pretty poorly in the first two quarters, but he’s not a guy who ever hangs his head. He’s not making excuses. He actually raises the level and toughens up a little bit and then he had a good third quarter.”

“Everybody knows he’s talented, he’s hungry, he’s working hard,” said Reggie Jackson, who played over a thigh contusion. “I think he’s learning what it is to work in this league. Just scary – scary how good he could be.”

Jackson sees the same jump in performance from his backcourt mate, Caldwell-Pope, that Van Gundy referenced.

“He’s locked in. He’s really coming out and competing every day,” he said. “Defensively, we all know he’s special and he continues to amaze us. He’s just getting better offensively. He’s understanding where his shots come from a little more. He continues to chase being great.”

Meeks, who played with a palpable bounce in his step and knocked down triples and runners with great efficiency, also sees a different Caldwell-Pope.

“Playing with more confidence,” he said. “Any time you get a chance to start the whole season, get experience, get a chance to play through your mistakes, this year he’s come in with more confidence.”

“Nobody’s got their legs right now, except Pope – somehow,” Van Gundy said after the Pistons gutted out their ninth practice of the last five days. “Jodie, when he came into camp – before we started taking everybody’s legs away from ’em – he looks healthy. He’s in great shape. He’s got a bounce to him that he never really got back to last year. He gives us some scoring that we’ll desperately need off the bench.”

Jackson and Andre Drummond, of course, are at the front of the line when it comes to determining the ceiling for this and future Pistons teams. But having the punch at the wing spots that Johnson, Morris, Caldwell-Pope and Meeks flashed on Saturday will go a long way toward making Jackson and Drummond a more potent pick-and-roll combo.

“KCP worked this summer and he’s gotten better. Jodie, we all know he can fill it up,” Jackson said. “Then I like the way Marcus and Stanley are battling. They did a good job and impressed.”

  • With Steve Blake (concussion) and Brandon Jennings (Achilles) out, Jackson and Spencer Dinwiddie were the only two point guards. Meeks and rookie Darrun Hilliard filled in when they sat. Van Gundy said if it hadn’t been for the scheduled public practice, he’d have given the team the day off and brought everybody in on Sunday instead, which was – and remains – the scheduled day off.

  • The good news? None of the injuries are long term. Blake will get checked on Monday and could return. Aron Baynes (ankle), Morris (toe) and Ersan Ilyasova (hip flexor) should all be back perhaps as early as Monday’s practice.

    “They’ve put in a lot,” Van Gundy said. “They’re tired, they’re banged up, but really we got through the week with nothing that’s going to be a long-term thing so feel pretty good. We just got guys banged up.”

  • Ilyasova went down awkwardly on his hip and didn’t get a lot of run, but he hit an early 3-pointer and Van Gundy said he’d had a very good week.

    “A lot of guys have played well, but probably the best players throughout the week have been KCP, Reggie, Ilyasova and Stanley. Ersan had a really good week. It’s too bad he went down.”

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