by Jake Appleman / @JakeAppleman
The first good performance of Andre Drummond’s career as an NBA starter came in his second try, against the Chicago Bulls on Easter Saturday in the United Center, an arena barely older than the 19-year-old Drummond. The Bulls hadn’t lost to the Pistons since December 23, 2008 and in each prior attempt this season, the Bulls had rallied from a 17-point deficit. It was also the Bulls’ first home game since breaking the Heat’s epic 27-game winning streak.
It didn’t look good for the Lottery-bound stragglers, fighting through yet another bleak season but the Pistons took it to the Bulls and built a sizable lead. Drummond scored his first basket on a tip-in and used his massive reach to beat Carlos Boozer to a rebound that he had no business corralling. He didn’t convert the three-point play, but still put the Pistons up 18-5 and checked out with 7 rebounds in 7:17 of game action.
Predictably, the Bulls clawed their way back into the game and the Pistons couldn’t even run with their most talented lineup down the stretch. Charlie Villanueva, in the game ostensibly for Drummond, missed the game-tying three. Jose Calderon was also in the game even though he had a tendon problem in his arm, making it almost impossible for him to summon the strength to shoot a three-pointer. Strange that Drummond, boasting raw power and game-altering athleticism, would be glued to the bench. But coming off of a back injury and too big a part of the Pistons’ future, Drummond is seen as an asset to be preserved.
“We’re still going to be cautious of his minutes,” then-Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said before the game, mere minutes after Kevin Ware broke his leg in front of what felt like the whole country.
Frank soon shifted into a hybrid coach-scout speak in assessing Drummond’s good qualities.
“He doesn’t even know how strong he is. He’s a strong, strong guy. But his quickness, his feet, his hands, his ability to finish at the rim…”
Frank also said Drummond needs to, “stay within [his] strength zone,”—i.e. play to his strengths while developing his weaknesses.
“It’s a little bit tough for me, starting a game and then coming out in different times when I’m not really expecting it, so it kind of throws me off a little bit,” Drummond admits, his soft voice the opposite of his jarring vertical leap. “But just being out there on the floor, it still feels great that I’m actually back instead of watching the game, so I can’t complain about the minute restriction at all.”
With such a close result, it was hard for Frank to hide how hard it is to win without Drummond.
“It’s almost like, I gotta beg [Pistons Trainer Arnie Kander],” Frank continued. “But at the end of the day, it’s: We’re not going to sacrifice Dre’s long-term growth for short term.”
Drummond’s ability to blossom when paired with Greg Monroe in the frontcourt is one—and perhaps the only—reason for Pistons’ brass to feel confident moving forward.
“He sees different things that I probably don’t see and I see different things that he doesn’t see,” Drummond says of playing with Monroe.
Monroe’s ability to score in myriad ways paired with Drummond’s dominance on the glass has Pistons fans understandably excited. Predictably, Frank turned big-picture philosophical while also tempering expectations for the twin towers tandem.
“One’s 19, the other’s 22,” the coach said. “Sometimes what we do is we’re very, very quick to rush to judgment on young guys. ‘Well it doesn’t work.’ It was four games. ‘Oh it does work! It’s great! These guys are better than, you know, Sampson and Olajuwon!’ It’s just going to take time.”
How good those things become may not depend on the Drummond/Monroe pairing, but the other pieces built around them. The Pistons nosedived after signing Ben Gordon and Villanueva to lucrative contracts in 2009. A team with a defensive identity quickly became an ill-fitting mishmash of gunners and guys on the decline. Four losing seasons followed the team’s last Playoff appearance, the loud reverberations of DEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL fading into a faint echo in front of smaller and smaller crowds in Auburn Hills. A post All-Star break malaise has played a hand in defining each season since 2008.
Gordon was traded to the Bobcats after last season and Villanueva’s deal will expire after the summer, but the Pistons have to move wisely. Continuing to build through the Draft while preaching patience—playing the role of the poker player slowly accumulating chips—would theoretically help in making a bigger splash down the line. Almost half of the Pistons’ 2013 salary commitments will be gone this summer when money owed to Rip Hamilton evaporates and Jose Calderon, Will Bynum, Corey Maggette and Jason Maxiell hit free agency, leaving the Pistons with a young core of Drummond, Monroe, Brandon Knight, Jonas Jerebko and Kyle Singler to build around.
There will also be a new coach. For now, Pistons fans have to dream on Drummond, the most tantalizing of that nucleus whose numbers (14 points and 14 rebounds per 36 minutes) presage great things. “My rookie year has been solid,” he says. “Went down with the injury, so…it’s been a great learning experience for me and I thought I got better each and every game.”
Regarding a summer ripe for development, Drummond says: “I could work on my back-to-the-basket game, but mostly—I mean, things I do on the floor, you can’t teach. I play hard. I play hard and I grab rebounds. What I’m really working on this summer is my free throws. Really, just work on my free throws and make sure I’m in condition when I come back.”
The free throws are a concern. Drummond air-balled a crucial pair at the stripe against the Bulls and shot just 36 percent for the season as if he was wearing Bo Outlaw beer goggles even though he would need a fake ID to drink.
I remember sitting courtside at the XL Center in Hartford last year before a Connecticut game, scouts and front office types salivating over Drummond as he displayed the layup line explosiveness reminiscent of a young Amar’e Stoudemire. He didn’t play particularly well that afternoon, getting outplayed inside by Notre Dame big men who will never sniff the League. It was hard not to look at the sleepy beast cynically. Yet the kid whose Draft stock fell has made a good first NBA impression, reminding many in the scouting business why they shouldn’t always jump to quick conclusions.
Oh, the Pistons finally beat the Bulls seven days after the close call on Easter. Drummond had a quiet night (3 points, 10 rebounds), but the result was a step in the right direction, and in his next game his minutes finally went up. Drummond went for 29 and 11 in Cleveland. Next season will come and the big man will check in, continuing—literally and figuratively—to move forward.