Of all the players eligible to sign extensions, one in particular stands out as someone who should have already signed, yet hasn’t: Andre Drummond.
Drummond entered college expected to be the second pick in the subsequent draft but a disappointing season at Connecticut and concerns regarding how much he actually liked to play basketball sunk his stock. He ended up going ninth, an absurd in hindsight. Three years in, Drummond now projects as the sort of transcending player who can lead the Pistons out of mediocrity.
He is not that player just yet and might still be a couple of years from getting there, so one could argue Detroit is right to negotiate thoroughly and not rush to hand him out the max. But the thing about negotiations is that they aren’t about what is right, they are about leverage and the Pistons don’t have any.
Letting him reach restricted free agency risks hurting their relationship and might make him consider signing his qualifying offer to come back to the market a year later as an unrestricted free agent in a landscape where he could ink a more lucrative deal. He just witnessed teammate Greg Monroe take that route and do well for himself.
Simply moving on from him, like they moved on from Monroe, isn’t an option at all for the Pistons. In his 17 months atop the organization, Stan Van Gundy has made several moves that limited its flexibility for the near future. None was necessarily crippling in a vacuum but in total, they strongly suggest Van Gundy’s focus was building a squad to be as good as it could the soonest it could. In the process, he built a team that isn’t any sort of immediate contender but shouldn’t be bad enough to contend for a high pick next draft and also doesn’t have its financials handled in a way that keeps it in the running for difference making free agents like Mike Conley, Jr. or Al Horford next summer. Drummond’s development is the only foreseeable avenue they have to a superstar that can carry them into real relevance, which is why the Pistons don’t get to say no to him.
AT THE RIM
Entering his fourth season as a pro, Drummond is still only 22 years old. Some might expect him to make that jump into superstardom next season already, but odds are he is still a couple of years away from starting his prime and that’s the schedule Detroit should be working with. He has, nonetheless, already shown what kind of impact player he could be – a difference making force around the rim on both ends.
Drummond is already one of the very best finishers in the league, converting 65% of his shots within three feet of the basket in his 6,364 minutes as a pro – according to basketball-reference. Despite his massive six-foot-11, 270-pound frame, he moves very fluidly in space – able to screen far above the three-point arc and dive down the lane with the sort of speed that sucks in attention and can potentially open up shots for others around the perimeter.
Drummond can catch the ball on the move and play above the rim as a target for lobs. He has also used his seven-foot-six wingspan to rebound outside of his area and collect second chances in volume, leading the league in offensive rebounds the last couple of years.
His quickness and leaping ability translate on defense, as he is able to play above the rim as a constant shot blocking threat, rotating off the weak-side in a pinch and exploding off the ground to erase shots at the rim. Drummond has room to improve as a positional defender, using his mobility to contain drives and keep opponents from getting to the rim in the first place more often, but his prolificacy erasing shots at the basket is already really meaningful.
According to Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow, Drummond was one of the 20 best rim protectors in the league last season. His ‘Points Saved/36 Minutes’ metric estimated Drummond saved 0.92 points per 36 minutes at the rim more than the average big man.
His dominance on the glass is also a huge asset in deterring opponent’s scoring. Drummond is a truly elite defensive rebounder – collecting 30.1% of opponents’ misses last season, who uses his edge in athleticism, quickness tracking the ball off the rim and effort to win 50-50 balls, collecting 29.3% of his 667 defensive rebounds in contested battles.
A physical freak with decent instincts about how to play inside the lane, what is holding Drummond from becoming a true superstar at the moment is his skill level. All of the gaps in his game are skill-related.
Van Gundy had him posting up quite a bit last preseason and early last year. Drummond flashed some decent passing, hitting cutters darting down the lane in one motion and shooters spot-up on the opposite side from time to time. But he struggled creating and finishing good looks for himself with his back to the basket, very mechanical with his moves and lacking touch on his hooks – averaging a putrid 0.69 point per possession on these looks.
He is not any sort of asset passing out of the short roll or facilitating offense from the elbows and has no such thing as shooting range, assisting on just 3.2% of Detroit’s scores in his three years in the league.
But perhaps the biggest concern regards his foul shooting. Drummond has missed 60% of the 852 free throws he has taken in the NBA, a historically poor mark. If the Pistons ever get good but Drummond doesn’t improve his foul shooting, this will become very problematic because opponents will have a lot of incentive to not only employ a Hack-a-Shaq strategy but also foul him on the catch whenever he touches the ball inside the lane and limit his availability late in games. Considering how great of a threat Drummond is at the rim, this could become the most efficient strategy to stop the spread pick-and-roll offense Van Gundy plans to implement, if his personnel decisions turn out wise, of course.
In his second offseason as top decision maker, and the first one where he had real flexibility to implement his vision, Van Gundy has built a team that very clearly will look to leverage Drummond’s presence inside the lane on both ends.
Detroit returns nine players that finished last season with the team, none more prominent than Reggie Jackson. After acquiring him at the trade deadline for Kyle Singler, DJ Augustin and a second-round pick, the Pistons re-signed Jackson to a five-year, $80-million dollar contract in the summer, a deal many considered to be poor management given the landscape of the market at that time.
By July 6, there was no clear landing spot for Jackson to command that sort of commitment somewhere else. Detroit clearly decided sometime in March or April that it would retain Jackson no matter what it took and opted to bypass the part where it actually analyzed and negotiated what exactly was needed for that to happen. That makes it even more confusing how they haven’t extended Drummond already.
Aside from Jackson, Van Gundy also overpaid for Aron Baynes – a decent backup center but one who is expected to log just 18 minutes per game, yet was given a three-year, $19 million dollar contract while a more proven commodity like Brandan Wright commanded three years, $18 million. Joel Anthony also got a two-year, $5 million dollar-deal for being a good locker room presence.
This sort of disregard for market value might cost the Pistons in the future. Daryl Morey has proven that squeezing value out of every single deal is vital to building a legit contender. But perhaps just as vital is luck, and none of this might matter if Van Gundy’s bets hit, especially his bet on Jackson.
In his 27 games with Detroit, he did well enough in a vacuum to justify the team investing on him long-term. Jackson struggled to hit his pull-ups and turned it over at a high rate just like he had in Oklahoma City but proved able to turn the corner out of the pick-and-roll, finish against length at the rim, draw shooting fouls and find open shooters more consistently. As the triggerman in Van Gundy’s attack, Jackson took 31% of his shots at the rim, scored them at a 64.1% clip, averaged 4.5 free throws per 36 minutes and assisted on 51.2% of Detroit’s scores in his 870 minutes on the floor. At age 25, he is right at the beginning of his prime.
That attack looked healthier once Van Gundy waived Josh Smith via the stretch provision and cleared more minutes for Jonas Jerebko, Anthony Tolliver and Shawne Williams in lineups that didn’t feature Drummond and Monroe playing together. It should look even healthier now that Monroe is gone to Milwaukee, and the power forward slot will be occupied by a shooter full time.
Van Gundy traded for Ersan Ilyasova to be the most prominent of those shooters and hopes the Turkish sniper can be an upgrade over last season’s stretch fours. Ilyasova isn’t the elite shooter some portray him to be but tends to finish seasons hitting his three-point shots at an above average clip and should get better looks playing off a decent dribble penetrator like Jackson and an excellent roll man like Drummond.
The biggest issue is his health. He has logged more than 66 games just twice in his seven years in the NBA. Ilyasova is also a great case to figure out just how smart the league as a whole has gotten, though. He isn’t much of a threat off the bounce and can’t take advantage of smaller players on the post and in the offensive glass. Theoretically speaking, opponents should always go small against him to contest his shots a little quicker and then force him to defend in space on the other end. Tolliver offers the exact same issue.
Van Gundy, however, deserves praise for how he acquired contingency plans for when his pure stretch-fours are played off the court.
Armed with the eighth pick, the Pistons selected Stanley Johnson in the draft – the name they were expected to choose all along, but who was nonetheless a surprise choice once Justise Winslow dropped and remained available. Based on summer league, Johnson seems more prepared to contribute right away. He projects as a wing but thanks to his physical profile, he is suited to log stretches as a smallball power forward and could add a lot of flexibility to the offense at that position with his ball skills.
He tends to drive right but proved able to turn the corner out of the pick-and-roll and get to the rim with some consistency, hung in the air and finished through contact at the basket, showcased the ability to make the pocket pass and flashed a floater to finish over length in the in-between area. Concerns over this three-point shot remains, though. Johnson can hit open shots but has a low release off the catch and might struggle against legit NBA length contesting his long-range attempts.
Smartly, Detroit also picked up Marcus Morris, grouped together with Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger, from Phoenix for a second round pick in 2020. Morris became available once the Suns needed to clean their books for a run at LaMarcus Aldridge, but also because he faces aggravated assault charges with his brother in Arizona for beating up some guy who texted their mother something they didn’t like.
Anyway, on the court Morris figures to be of help. He brings the better of two worlds – used almost entirely as a big in Houston, then logging most of his minutes as a wing in Phoenix. He developed as a legit open shot threat – converting 36.8% of his 573 three-point shots the last two years, and also brings a capable floor game to the table – assisting on 10% of Phoenix scores when he was on the floor and finishing his drives at a 42% clip last season, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking data.
Bullock, by the way, is a great low-percentage bet as well. He has prototypical size for a wing in the NBA and hit 38.7% of the 486 three-point shots he took at North Carolina. Doc Rivers just never took much of a look at him and Phoenix had a massive logjam of bodies at his position. Bullock has shown flashes of potential plus defense in the few minutes he has played and stretched himself a bit running side pick-and-rolls with Bakersfield in the D-League.
The competition for minutes on the wing will be intense, though. These newcomers join Jodie Meeks and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two players the Pistons have a lot invested on.
Meeks was signed to play the role JJ Redick did in Orlando, a shooter with gravity who can be moved around the floor and command attention from the defense. But injuries limited him to just 60 appearances last season and 35% shooting from three-point range. Van Gundy probably expects more from him on healthier legs and within a healthier offensive ecosystem next season.
Caldwell-Pope enters his third season, meaning the team will have to make a decision on whether or not to extend him next summer. Drafted eighth overall in 2013, he has not been able to make shots or plays on offense and be an impactful presence on defense. Caldwell-Pope did hit 37.5% of his catch-and-shoot three-point shots last season but averaged 0.55 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, missed 65% of his pull-ups, finished his drives at a 39.8% clip and rated as a negative on defense according to ESPN’s ‘defensive real plus-minus’. He will need a big year three to kick the tires on those extension talks.
Van Gundy has also speculated he might attempt playing Jackson and Brandon Jennings together some. Both guys are good enough catch-and-shoot three-point shooters for it to work well enough on offense and Jackson is big enough (208-pound frame, seven-foot wingspan) to guard some smaller wings. Both guys are ball-dominant but Jennings is returning from a left ruptured Achilles injury and not having the responsibility to attack the lane on every possession could aid him in his comeback. The landscape of the East could also make it possible for these two-point-guard lineups to work fine.
This roster is clearly structured based on Drummond. The point guard who creates for him at the rim was retained at an obscene value, several shooters to create space for his dives were added, there is a lot of length to contest passing lanes and funnel drivers towards his help-defense, and even his backup was chosen in part because one of his top skills (foul shooting) hedges against Drummond’s potential unavailability late in games.
Drummond is the franchise. Quality frontcourt players were not retained because they didn’t fit with him, the roster was tailored around his skill-set and the coach in place has a track record of developing someone exactly like him into superstardom. Every decision is informed by his presence, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they haven’t made the financial commitment he commands yet, especially considering the other contracts they didn’t have a problem handing out above market value.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara