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Giant Steps

How Pistons center Andre Drummond became the man

Joe Dumars noticed the size first. Then he thought about the potential. The second pick of a loaded 2003 NBA draft had fallen into his lap. With a championship-caliber roster already in place, that coveted pick was the remnant of an ancient, one-sided trade with the Grizzlies.1 Dumars and the Detroit Pistons tapped Darko Milicic, a Serbian big man whose upside seemingly had upside, over future perennial All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. A few experts even expected Milicic, just 18 at the time of the draft, to one day take the league with a unique blend of strength and finesse. He was a 7-footer who could dribble and shoot, as comfortable two feet away from the basket as he was 20.

But choosing a big man in the NBA is always a precarious endeavor, largely based on projection and hope. Centers routinely enter the NBA with the rawest, least developed skills of any position. As amateurs, they dominate simply by towering over their opponents. But in the NBA, they can be just another tree in the forest. Historically, size wins when teams debate between smaller, more agile players and bigger ones with potential. That’s why Sam Bowie went before Michael Jordan and Greg Oden was taken before Kevin Durant. Sometimes you get Shaquille O’Neal. Sometimes Michael Olowokandi.

“When you get a special talent like this, and it comes at that size, it’s almost impossible to pass on that,” Dumars, Detroit’s president of basketball operations, told reporters upon drafting Milicic. “As special as I think Carmelo Anthony is, I do believe there will be other great 6-8 small forwards who will come around. But when the opportunity comes to get a 7-1 player with that kind of ability, you don’t pass it up.” Dumars did not. But the red flags came early for Milicic. When he relayed his idea of wearing a suit to the draft and then ripping if off — Superman-style — upon his name being announced, revealing a Pistons jersey, Dumars wisely cautioned against it. It was then that the doubts began to creep into Dumars’s head. Milicic would become an NBA wanderer, never reaching his potential. Now, with Anthony, Wade, and Bosh still thriving in the league, Milicic is out of it.

Just as Milicic was drafted by Detroit, Christine Cameron watched her son Andre get introduced to the game of basketball. It was only natural — Drummond was big. He had always been big; so large, in fact, that his uncle Phil Santavenere prophesied at Andre’s birth that he would one day play in the NBA. But he had a long way to go. During a game when Drummond was 7 years old, all the players ran to the action on one side of the court. Drummond jogged in the opposite direction. “He didn’t even know which end of the court to run to,” Cameron said. “I used to say it was like comedy hour every Saturday when we’d go to watch him play.” Other parents complained whenever the gangly kid entered the game. Once, Santavenere sat in the stands near a couple. “He stinks,” Santavenere recalled the couple saying as they pointed and laughed. “Look at how big and uncoordinated he is.” Drummond’s uncle fumed. But he also knew something that couple didn’t. “People didn’t realize his potential,” Santavenere said. And as Cameron, Santavenere, and others helped Drummond navigate the murky, territorial waters of youth basketball, the doubters grew louder and more forceful. Right until the moment he quieted them for good.

Phil Santavenere taught his sons Phil Jr. and Steven to play basketball. Santavenere began tutoring Drummond when Cameron, his wife’s sister, moved to Middletown, Connecticut, from New York’s Mount Vernon. “The craziest thing to me is how bad he was growing up,” said Santavenere Jr. “Basketball, he was terrible at it. He sucked.”

“Nothing improves without practice,” Cameron would tell Drummond. The best players played all the time, year-round, and so his uncle enrolled all three boys in an AAU program. But Drummond was still raw, and he’d cry when his uncle refused to play him. When they’d practice in the backyard, Santavenere never gave an inch — he’d sooner lay out his sons than give up an easy bucket. “You have to earn whatever you get in life,” Santavenere told Drummond. “One day you’re going to be so tall that every shot you take is going to be a dunk.”

At first Drummond was all knees and elbows. Santavenere had a corner in his home where he marked off the height of the boys every few months. His nephew soon shot past Phil Jr., two years his elder. Santavenere eventually had to stand on a chair to mark Drummond’s height. But Drummond could barely make a layup. Surrounded by smaller players, he emulated them by hauling in rebounds and attempting to push the ball upcourt, before inevitably turning it over. But he kept pace with the fleetest of players and had big, reliable hands. “My uncle Phil really just helped me continue to get better and show me different things that I could do because he knew that I was going to be big, so he always tried to work with me on my back to the basket and my post game,” Drummond said.

Santavenere also wanted the boys to know how far they had to go if they wanted to excel. He pitted them against the tougher, older teams from Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey. They piled into Santavenere’s Toyota Sequoia, sometimes eight or nine members of the team, and scraped together enough money for one hotel room; everyone who couldn’t fit in the room slept in the car.

When a youth league held a draft for incoming players, every team passed on Drummond, until Santavenere took him with the last pick of the first round. “They might as well have just handed us a couple more chips, because it was just unfair,” Santavenere said. “They just saw a goofy, nice kid that was uncoordinated and long.” Soon, Drummond began to improve. By 12, he towered over opponents and had become a willing student of the game.

The boys caught the eye of J.R. Hargreaves, who had formed an AAU team called the Connecticut Basketball Club with Pat Sullivan in 2004. “The first time I saw [Andre] was in a gym with a bunch of sixth graders, and walking and chewing gum was a challenge for the guy,” Sullivan said. But like Santavenere, Hargreaves saw room for growth. “He was much bigger than everyone else at a very young age,” Hargreaves wrote in an e-mail. “His length was superior to all the other kids in town. He really started to show promise around 14 years old.”

Drummond and his two cousins joined Hargreaves’s team. Cameron, meanwhile, told her son that he could be anything he wanted: a doctor, a lawyer, even a pro basketball player. The product of a strict household in St. Thomas, Cameron immigrated to the United States in 1989 and had Andre four years later. Drummond’s father was never around growing up, but Cameron, a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, was tough with her son and expected respect. Once, Santavenere recalled, he arrived at their home to pick up Drummond for a basketball camp hosted by LeBron James. But Drummond had forgotten to do the laundry that day. Not good: Cameron grounded her son.

“Once she said he’s not going,” Santavenere said, “he wasn’t going.”

By the time Drummond enrolled as a freshman at Hartford’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School, he stood at about 6-foot-7. Levy Gillespie, Capital Prep’s coach, wanted Drummond to develop an inside-out game.2 Gillespie didn’t know if Drummond would grow much taller — as a freshman, Drummond was already a few inches taller than his father. Drummond and Gillespie negotiated what kind of player he’d be and came to an agreement: If Drummond could take an opponent off the dribble, he would. But if the game tightened and he had a smaller opponent on him — he always had a smaller opponent on him — he would work underneath the basket. “I would let him bring the ball down the court and kind of have fun with the basketball,” Gillespie said. “Because most of the time he [was] taking a beating inside, guys elbowing and pushing him.”

Andre Drummond Drummond had one game in which he recorded an eye-popping quadruple-double: 27 points, 14 blocks, 16 rebounds, and 10 steals. “I knew at that point that he could go far in this basketball thing,” Gillespie said. He also kept growing. One day, Drummond found himself bickering with a teammate. “If you weren’t 6-10, you’d be nothing,” the kid said to him. Drummond paused and considered his response. “Well, I am,” he replied. Christopher Fulton, a teacher and coach, overheard the conversation. He’s right, Fulton said he remembered thinking. You can’t teach height. You can’t teach size. You can’t teach speed.

To Cameron’s despair, Drummond expressed an interest in football. To Cameron’s relief, Drummond wasn’t very good. During one practice he tried to haul in a pass like a rebound — the ball bounced aimlessly off of his foot, up into the air, and through his hands again. “He didn’t understand the game,” said Fulton, the team’s football coach. “I think had he hung around a little bit, he would have been a problem. You can’t defend that.”

Drummond wisely stuck to basketball. By the time he hit high school, he was unmistakable on the court — at his height, he was the only thing people could see. But that pressure wore on him. He was mild-mannered and easygoing. Take away the size and basketball ability and Drummond was who he wanted to be: a normal teenager. “You can’t have it both ways,” Fulton told him. “You can’t step out of the house and want people not to notice you when you’re 6-9, 6-10. You can’t have everyone ignore that fact then, but want them to notice you whenever you step on a basketball court.” At the time, Patrick Sellers was an assistant at UConn and a friend of Hargreaves. He recommended that UConn coach Jim Calhoun stop by to see Drummond play one day on his ride home. “He calls later that night,” Sellers said. “He says, ‘Pat, the score was 74-18. Andre had like 17 blocked shots. Maybe 10 or 11 dunks. It was a joke. He was so much bigger, stronger, and faster than all the other kids that it was a joke.'”

After his sophomore year in 2009, Drummond transferred to St. Thomas More, a prep school in Oakdale, Connecticut, that also sent Quincy Douby and Devin Ebanks to the NBA. Drummond’s coaches, Fulton and Gillespie, understood the decision. “He’s just a great kid,” Fulton said. But he was bothered by the idea that Drummond needed more exposure. “I’m getting calls from [Georgetown coach] John Thompson III,” Fulton said. “I’m getting calls from [Florida coach] Billy Donovan. We go to games and Jim Calhoun and Sellers are in the stands. What other kind of exposure does he need?”

“I had a problem with that. I thought they were using the kid.”3

The 2004 Pistons captured a championship, but Darko Milicic was little more than a footnote. Dumars had masterfully dealt for Rasheed Wallace that season, a deal that vaulted the Pistons and also buried Milicic further on the depth chart. It was a poor fit for both parties. The Pistons were loaded enough to take a big swing on a project like Milicic at the time, but they whiffed. He averaged fewer than two points in 96 regular-season games with Detroit.

“Darko is a young player and I think he’s going to get an opportunity to play in Orlando,” Dumars said upon dealing Milicic along with Carlos Arroyo for Kelvin Cato and a 2007 first-round pick. “I wish him the best going forward.”

Milicic hoped for a better future. “In Detroit, I feel like a ball boy,” he told The Detroit News. “I never got the chance to play. Nobody gives me an explanation of why. I know they’re a championship team, but I am in my third year. You can’t tell me there wasn’t a place for me to get five, seven minutes?”

As time wore on, everyone — Dumars included — regarded the selection as the worst of his Pistons tenure. But deep down, Dumars may still wonder about gambling on Darko, a player who, had he reached his potential, could have transformed his Pistons in ways that Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh couldn’t. Dumars had wagered on the wrong guy, filing the moment away and vowing to learn from it.

As the championship core began to age, the Milicic choice wiped out any chance at continuity for Detroit’s success. The free-agent signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009 proved disastrous. The Pistons regressed after qualifying for the Eastern Conference finals in six straight seasons, and began to cycle through coaches every couple of years.

“I could give a dissertation on that,” Dumars eventually told MLive.com of the choice to select Milicic. “After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that.

“The background on [Milicic] was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn’t know half of the stuff you needed to know.”

After more than three decades as head coach at St. Thomas More, Jere Quinn has developed a national reputation as a coach who does not recruit. Top players seek him out. When Drummond arrived, he reclassified as a sophomore while recovering from a stress fracture in his foot. “You came here as the number-one player in the country,” Quinn told him. “If you leave here as the number-two player, I’ve failed you.”

Drummond quickly took to St. Thomas More. He became a resident adviser for the school’s eighth and ninth graders and helped coach the junior varsity basketball team. He was beginning to fit in.

“He was never really full of himself,” said Bridget Autencio, who tutored Drummond at the school. “He knew he was going to be something good, that’s what his big plan was, but he didn’t really act like that. I’ve been here for 27 years and I’ve seen plenty of athletes who think they are going to be all that. You don’t like the personality that comes with that package sometimes, but he didn’t have any of that.”

The plan unfolded just as Quinn envisioned. St. Thomas More won a National Prep Championship in 2011. Drummond averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds. Gatorade named him the state’s high school player of the year. But there were questions from pundits about Drummond’s work ethic.

“For his size he moved extremely well — not only running the floor, but also on the block,” said Evan Daniels, a basketball recruiting analyst for Fox Sports who watched Drummond play dozens of times in high school. “With that said, there was an issue with Andre not always playing hard. I think for the most part, when he was challenged, he rose to the occasion. Some of it, in my opinion, was boredom.”

Drummond rarely spoke for himself. His family wanted him to focus on school and basketball, and they shielded him. They didn’t host coaches or recruiters — a rarity in an era when top players regularly bask in the spotlight for as long as possible, as early as possible. They changed their phone number several times. And unlike other recruits and their families, they shied away from the publicity. Drummond said he preferred it this way, but it also limited the chance for anyone to get to know him. Some thought he was a selfish loner, others saw a blank slate. “I think it kind of worked out in my favor because it got more people to want to figure out who am I and what am I doing,” Drummond said. “So it was fun for me knowing I could just focus on basketball and school without having an extra party talking to me behind my ear.”

Andre Drummond Cameron had a simple philosophy for her son: The truth is the truth. “Whenever you know the truth, you don’t worry about what people have to say,” she said. “I always tell him that. As long as he knows the truth. People are entitled to their opinions. You can’t stop people from talking, though, can we?”

Santavenere and Hargreaves also had a falling-out. The split left Drummond torn. The two men had served as mentors in both life and basketball, filling the male presence left by his absent father.

“Andre was becoming special. And there’s a lot of dirty politics when kids get into high school because you don’t realize there’s a business component that goes along with this,” Santavenere said. “And then you have to deal with the dynamics of the dirty stuff that goes on in AAU and grassroots basketball.”

Santavenere believed Hargreaves was positioning himself to profit from Drummond’s imminent professional career. In an e-mail, Hargreaves denied the accusation.

“I have always preached to Andre the importance of self-sufficiency and not being dependent on people,” Hargreaves wrote. “So controlling Andre’s career undermines all of the core values I tried and continue to pass on to Andre. I’m not a Taker, I love to Giver!”

Santavenere’s sons eventually moved on to another AAU team and tried to convince Drummond to join them, but he remained with CBC. “I don’t think Andre understands it because Andre was always babied, or stuff was always done for him,” said Santavenere Jr., who now plays for St. Francis. “He’s just kind of a carefree, humble person. I’m not going to rely on him to get me a scholarship to go to college and play basketball. Some people tried.”

Christine Cameron said that she valued loyalty to the program and that she was the only one steering Drummond’s career. “People have disagreements and when people have disagreements, some people can get over it and some people can’t,” Cameron said, adding that she and Drummond have maintained their relationship with Hargreaves. “I have no problem with anybody.”

But there was a moment when her son tried to alter the plan. Word spread that Drummond was prepared to join a third school in four years, on Hargreaves’s recommendation. After graduating from St. Thomas More in 2011, Drummond announced that he planned to attend Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, rather than college. Drummond’s sister, Ariana, and Kris Dunn, an AAU teammate, also planned to attend. Drummond liked the idea of being around family, and the transfer would also hide him for another year, allowing him more time to develop his game against weaker competition than the college level. Drummond would then be draft-eligible, a largely unknown commodity with a high ceiling.

“We had a lot of great players that were going to Wilbraham & Monson with us,” Dunn said. “A couple players from our AAU team and then me and Andre, we played so long together in AAU, we would have had a good connection if we would have went there.”

That summer, Drummond was playing video games at home when his family summoned him to another room. Cameron, Santavenere, his uncle Glen Johnson, and his grandmother waited for him. Cameron spoke first. She wanted him to attend UConn, learn under a renowned coach, and stay close enough to home so that she could attend games. “[A prep school] was not the right fit for him,” Cameron said. “I didn’t want him to say, ‘I graduated from one high school to go to another high school.’ No, you go to college.”

Drummond resisted. He wanted to be with his sister as she entered high school. He wanted to play with Dunn.

Drummond would be hiding if he went to another prep school, Santavenere said. Yes, the transfer could boost his draft stock. But that would go against everything Santavenere and Cameron had taught him. Remember when he cried when Santavenere kept him on the bench? Remember when Santavenere laid him out in the games in the backyard? You earn what you get.

“Go to college, prove that you can play at a higher level, and if it doesn’t work out, you’re going to get a four-year degree,” Santavenere told him. “We don’t care how long you have to stay in college. You can’t back out of a challenge. You don’t want to fool anybody just to take their money.”

On August 26, 2011, Drummond tweeted that he was headed to UConn. “I wanted to go back to high school, but I think it was best for me to just move on and go to college and just play against the top talent at the college level instead of going back to high school and just plateauing,” Drummond said.

The news caught everyone by surprise. Drummond had to reclassify again to join Connecticut’s incoming class.

“I was down in Rhode Island on a beach at a clam bake and I get a call from arguably the best prospect in the class: ‘I want to come to school now,'” Calhoun said. “And I had talked to him the week before and he probably thought he was going to prep school. I certainly didn’t say, ‘Oh, we don’t want you.'”

Drummond hoped to guide Connecticut to a repeat national championship. Guard Jeremy Lamb hadn’t heard much about the touted recruit, but marveled when Drummond arrived on campus. “He could do whatever dunk he wanted,” Lamb said.

Calhoun had heard all the disclaimers about players before their arrival in Storrs: that Caron Butler was a troublemaker. That Ben Gordon was too small to score. That Rudy Gay couldn’t get his own shot on the next level. They all proved their naysayers wrong. He expected Drummond to do the same.

“He actually did something strange,” Calhoun said. “He had a normal life. He wasn’t obsessive about basketball, which a lot of our kids are. But he also had an incredible degree of athleticism. He’s a great young guy and when it came to what he was going to do, he turned his heart, soul, and mind into it.”

“The bottom line is I have a lot of confidence in Andre,” he continued. “I never thought, This guy’s a pain in the neck. As a matter of fact, Andre didn’t have a lot of confidence because he was just a regular person who didn’t realize just how talented he is.”

Still, Drummond and the university hit one roadblock after another. He decided to attend the school just three days before the start of the fall semester. UConn possessed only 10 scholarships after losing one due to NCAA violations and two because of a poor academic performance rating.

Drummond’s commitment put UConn over their limit on scholarships. Michael Bradley, whom Drummond had known for years, offered to give up his scholarship and qualify for financial aid. Many thought Drummond had accepted Bradley’s offer and viewed him as selfish. Drummond instead insisted on taking out loans and walking on to the team, allowing Bradley to retain his scholarship. “I mean, I played against Mike when I was 16 years old, and he worked real hard to get that scholarship,” Drummond told the Associated Press in December 2011. “That’s kind of like disrespectful to take that from him. I would never do nothing like that.”

Drummond had been a recruited player, so it took nearly three months for the school and NCAA to resolve the issue and declare Drummond a walk-on. “My first responsibility wasn’t to tell the press what was going on,” Calhoun told reporters. “Of course, it’s none of your business. It’s a private matter between two young men.”

Things weren’t always easy at UConn. Drummond broke his nose and suffered a mild concussion during a late-October practice. He wore a fitted protective mask over his nose that bothered him on the court. He showed improvement in fits and starts. That team featured two ball-dominant players in Lamb and Shabazz Napier who struggled to look for Drummond in the post. “Andre gradually improved,” Calhoun said. “You wouldn’t see it every day. But he would go from doing good things in a game to having good moments in a game to having good halves in a game. He never had the type of game that I know he’s going to have if he keeps going.”

Calhoun missed three Big East Conference games while he was suspended for recruiting violations under his watch, and took a month-long medical leave while battling spinal stenosis. But he stayed close with Drummond. “He’s like my best friend,” Drummond said of Calhoun. “He always looked out for me, made sure I was good. Made sure I was taking care of myself for school, made sure I was fine in class. He was sick as well. It was tough seeing him out for so many games, but I’d always go to his office and just check on him and make sure he was good.”

The season ended disappointingly, with a 77-64 loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Iowa State. Drummond managed just one field goal and three rebounds in 26 minutes. UConn finished with a 20-14 record and went just 8-10 in the Big East. “We had challenges,” Lamb said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it. But it was still a good season. You learn from failure, and we learned a lot that year.”

UConn faced a postseason ban the following season due to several years of low scores on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. The family convened again. Drummond decided to declare for the NBA draft, becoming the first one-and-done player in Connecticut’s storied history. “I wanted to stay, but I think the best move for me and my family was to continue on,” Drummond said. Few knew how harshly NBA scouts would judge Drummond for his lone season as a Huskie.

The calls left Jere Quinn flabbergasted. A number of NBA organizations called with the same questions before the draft. Did Drummond play hard? Was he too nice? Did he love the game?

“He was in the gym all the time,” Quinn said. “That was the lunacy of the whole thing. When the whole process was going, I said, ‘You people have something wrong.'”

Quinn responded with his own set of inquiries: Who is the biggest guy in the draft? Who is the youngest guy in the draft? Who is the most athletic guy in the draft? “Well, if I’m in a position to get the biggest kid in the draft, the best athlete, who’s the youngest, I’m going to covet that,” Quinn would say.

Some had Drummond pegged as a possible top overall selection before he’d attended the University of Connecticut. By the time the 2012 draft rolled around, he’d started to slide. The criticisms seemed personal. “Andre Drummond, 6 feet 10 and 18 years old, is ready for the NBA the same way Amanda Bynes was ready to drive a car the other night in West Hollywood,” the Hartford Courant‘s Jeff Jacobs wrote. “You know it. I know it. He has to know it. #Unpolished. #Raw. #Inconsistent.”

Questions about his “motor” and “desire” continued to follow him. According to those close to Drummond, there are several possibilities for the rumors’ origins. Maybe it was because he smiled when he played, rather than scowled. Or maybe it was the AAU teams Drummond chose not to play for that floated the rumors out of jealousy. Or maybe Drummond knows the real reason.

“Honestly, I think it was just because of the way I played at UConn,” Drummond said. “I didn’t have the best year. We lost in the first round and I think there was a lot of weight on my shoulders knowing that I didn’t play the way I was supposed to play.”

Dumars had dreams of a new front line. He imagined a dynamic pairing with Greg Monroe, a talented forward he’d drafted out of Georgetown in 2010. At the NBA draft combine in Chicago, Drummond tipped the scales as the heaviest prospect, at 278.6 pounds. But he was also one of the leanest, with just 7.5 percent body fat. And after he eliminated cookies from his diet, Drummond trimmed 14 pounds from his 6-foot-11 frame. He was a man-child; a rare combination of size and athleticism, maybe the NBA’s greatest mix of the two since Dwight Howard.

Drummond’s agent, Rob Pelinka, deflected Detroit’s initial request for a personal workout. Drummond wouldn’t be around when the Pistons selected ninth, Pelinka insisted. But the calls stopped coming from top-eight teams — they had no commitments. He finally relented a couple days before the draft. Dumars and assistant GM George David were to meet with Drummond in New York. They boarded a plane that afternoon. Drummond performed a quick workout for Dumars and David, then told them, “If I fall to number nine, I’d be excited to put on a Pistons uniform.” Drummond connected with Dumars, who says now, “When I left that night after watching him work out and after just watching the raw ability of him on the court and then visiting with him afterward, I just felt like if he’s there at nine, there’s no way we’re going to pass on this kid.”

Those eight teams still needed to pass on Drummond. Cleveland at four, Sacramento at five, and Toronto at eight all could have used an imposing big man. During the draft, cameras panned to an anxious Drummond as each of those teams passed him up. Cleveland took Dion Waiters, Sacramento selected Thomas Robinson, who has been traded twice, and Toronto drafted Terrence Ross.

Andre Drummond Detroit eagerly grabbed Drummond, who couldn’t have been more relieved. “I knew I was getting picked here, so I was really excited knowing I had a home and a place that really wanted me,” Drummond said. “They knew that they were going to get a player that was going to work hard.” The Darko comparisons inevitably followed.

“Whenever you take a raw, young player, there’s a risk to it,” Dumars said. “I don’t know if you can ever eliminate the risk of taking young big men. I just think you have to have faith that if you take a young big and it doesn’t work out, I don’t think you can be gun-shy about the next young big that comes along, like an Andre. There’s no foolproof method to this. There’s no exact science to this. We saw Andre and the thought of not taking him because Darko didn’t work out never entered the equation. Not even remotely. It’s a part of this business.”

The Pistons vowed to introduce Drummond to the NBA slowly and carefully. They wanted him to be an athlete, a shot blocker, a presence, a finisher. Now a perennial lottery team, Detroit’s organization had more than enough time to develop Drummond. It had learned from its mistakes with Milicic.

“We kept it very simple and allowed him to grow at his own pace,” said Dumars, “because we felt like the worst thing you can do is put undue expectations on this kid.” Drummond looked promising in limited minutes. Soon he was compiling highlight-reel plays at both ends of the court, flexing that freakish length and revisiting the days when he imagined himself as a rangy guard. But it wasn’t enough for him.

“The dog coming off the bench” is how an unsatisfied Drummond characterized his first season. He averaged 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 60 games, standing out in a league with few traditional big men. He unfortunately mimics Howard in another area: his infamously terrible free throw shooting. It’s an area he desperately needs to improve, to put it mildly. He shot only 37.1 percent on free throws last season. But in one season, he buried concern about his work ethic and dedication. “The only thing we didn’t know and you can’t know until you draft him is, how is he going to work once he gets here?” Dumars said. “Is he actually going to put the time in and put the work in? He has.”

The organization is enthralled with Drummond — it almost cannot believe its luck. Before talking basketball, Dumars and others in the organization talk about him as a person. The big kid with the broad, beaming smile is grounded and respectful, according to several members of the organization. Those questions about desire? They’re gone.

Calhoun joked that he might still be coaching had Drummond stuck around another year or two at UConn. “He made great strides from the time he left St. Thomas More to the year here,” Calhoun said. “So why wouldn’t I believe if he’s going to do it full-time, he wouldn’t make even greater strides? I care about all of my kids. But they all aren’t as easy to talk to as Andre in the sense that he doesn’t have any pretenses about how he is. He’s starting to, which is good. He’s starting to believe that he can be really good, which is a real positive for him.”

Most young players would jump at their first chance at independence. Drummond wanted to live with his mom and sister in Michigan. His mom has lived with him since day one. Ariana eventually came around — she attends Detroit Country Day School, the same high school that produced Shane Battier and Chris Webber.

“I didn’t want to come out here by myself,” Drummond said. “Having her and my sister out here was really comforting, knowing that if I did have a bad game or anything went wrong, I could always go to them and get things off my chest. Not only is she my mom, but she’s like my partner in crime. Everything I always do, it always runs through her.”

Drummond fulfilled a promise he made to Cameron of returning to Storrs after the season for more classes.4 After school let out for the summer, he practically lived at the Pistons’ facility, working out and refining his game. Now there’s a bit of symmetry with Detroit’s failed Darko experiment: Drummond now trains with Milicic’s former teammate and new Pistons assistant coach Rasheed Wallace, who is helping him develop his low-post game. “It’s not a B.S. session,” Dumars said. “It is physical, hard work for hours out there on the court. That’s the only way that you can get better as a young player. You just have to put the work in, and he’s doing it.”

At the behest of owner Tom Gores, Dumars remodeled the Pistons this offseason. Maurice Cheeks replaced Lawrence Frank as head coach. The organization added Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Italian star Luigi Datome, and is bringing back the steady veteran Chauncey Billups. Smith, Monroe, and Drummond should comprise a formidable frontcourt. Drummond has already impressed Cheeks in their short time together. He described Drummond’s hands as the best of any big he has seen. And he’s encouraged that the young big man seeks him out.

“He’s always asking questions,” Cheeks said. “Even before practice, he’ll come in and see me and we’ll talk about certain things that he can do to get better at. I think he has some knowledge in terms of where he wants to get to in terms of his ability. Most guys like that can reach another level — he has that ability.”

Pistons fans expect their team to make the playoffs for the first time since their championship and string of conference finals appearances. But much of that hinges on Drummond’s growth. Wallace is teaching Drummond to be more vocal on the court this season. And this year, Drummond and Cameron are living apart — but not far enough that Drummond can’t stop by for a home-cooked meal.

“I’m not going to be too far away,” Cameron said. “I’ll still be there. He’ll still be coming home for his dinner and everything, so [I'm] just trying to wean him a little bit. I know I’m going to have to wean him at some point in time.”

Andre Drummond-Jennette McCurdy The move should help Drummond’s dating life, if nothing else. As a joke, Drummond and Mike Boornazian, one of the friends he grew up playing basketball with, decided they should date the actresses from iCarly. So Drummond sent tweets to Jennette McCurdy. Boornazian directed his to Miranda Cosgrove. It took a while, but McCurdy finally answered Drummond. In August, the two posted several pictures of themselves together on Instagram. McCurdy even penned an article about their relationship for The Wall Street Journal. “I was kind of doing it for fun at first,” Drummond said. “I really meant it in the back of my head. But it was kind of just fun for me. But when she did respond, I was really excited.”

Boornazian is still awaiting Cosgrove’s response.

“I’d like to think that Miranda is just kind of busy right now and hopefully, I’ll wake up one morning and have a text back or something,” said Boornazian, who plays at Bates College. “It’s kind of wishful thinking.”

Drummond and McCurdy say that their relationship won’t affect their jobs, to the great relief of Pistons and Nickelodeon fans everywhere. (Rumors have been floated about a possible breakup, though neither party has confirmed.) Drummond’s route — with the help of his family — wasn’t always traditional. But few can argue with the results. If Darko Milicic went out of his way to date a Nickelodeon actress, you might have wondered about his priorities. When Drummond did it, everyone laughed. The Pistons are happy and getting better. So is Drummond.

“I think Andre always had good taste,” Calhoun said, laughing. “He had good taste in coaches. Now he has good taste in other things.”

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams