Watching the Detroit Pistons try to score last season had a lot in common with being forced to watch a Whitney marathon. It was long, mildly offensive, and likely done against your better judgment. Finally feeling the effects of some disastrous personnel choices, the Pistons offense plummeted from 15th in 2010 all the way to 29th, only one ahead of the historically inept Charlotte Bobcats. Needless to say, “fun” was not a word used to describe their style of play.
This season has been a different story. Detroit has jumped all the way back up to 18th in offensive efficiency — and mere percentage points away from being firmly in the top half of the league — thanks in large part to the addition of rookie center Andre Drummond. The young big man not only has impressive individual numbers — posting a PER of 23.0 in limited minutes — but the Pistons’ offense as a whole is nearly five points better when Drummond is on the floor. What’s made the raw first-year player so good is the Tyson Chandler–esque role he’s taken on as part of a Detroit bench lineup that has quietly become one of the most entertaining in the NBA.
At the start of the second and fourth quarters, Drummond is often teamed with fellow reserves Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye, Rodney Stuckey, and Will Bynum — a lineup that has completely demolished opposing defenses. In 81 minutes this year (small sample size alert!), that group has produced an astronomical offensive rating of 116.5 — good for the sixth-best mark in the NBA among five-man units that have played at least 80 minutes. Again, the sample size is small, but head coach Lawrence Frank has certainly found a way for his rookie center to thrive while still adjusting to the NBA game.
Drummond’s role on offense with this group is about simple as one gets. As Villanueva, Daye, and Stuckey spread the floor, Drummond and Bynum team up in the pick-and-roll. All Drummond has to worry about is diving hard to the rim after every screen, reacting to dribble penetration along the baseline when he’s not screening, and crashing the glass hard each time a shot goes up.
His read of the defense is infinitely easier with a stretch 4 like Villanueva than when he’s surrounded with more traditional bigs like starters Greg Monroe or Jason Maxiell, whose presence means less space in the paint. A more congested paint means more nuanced reads because rotations come faster and high-value spots on the floor are harder to reach. It was easy to see the difference in their matchup against Orlando this past Tuesday.
In the first clip, Villanueva pulls Orlando big man Josh McRoberts toward him in the corner. The open lane forces Jameer Nelson to foul Drummond near the free throw line because an extra step likely means another SportsCenter highlight.
When paired with Monroe, Drummond screens on the ball, then actually rolls into Monroe and Monroe’s defender in the paint. The simple task of screening and diving to the rim now becomes complicated. Should Drummond get the pass, he now has several options: catch-and-drive, catch-and-shoot, play high-low, pass-and-post, and pass-and-screen. One read has been replaced by five, and for rookies, that drastically increases the chance of a poor decision. Keeping things as simple as possible for Drummond is essential for Frank, given the amount of responsibility the rookie big man is coming to grips with on the other end of the floor.
Big athletes like Drummond typically dominate college because, well, they’re bigger and more athletic than everyone else. Both that advantage and the complexity of schemes on the defensive end of the floor change at the NBA level. Even at the best college programs, big men usually only learn the basics of defense (like rotating under control from the weak side), a couple different blanket pick-and-roll coverages, and how to defend common off-ball actions like wide pin-downs.
Due to the nightly changes in opposing personnel in the NBA, there can be up to seven different ways to cover a pick-and-roll at the same spot on the floor. Factor the adjustment to the speed of the game, and it’s not hard to see why Drummond suffers from the occasional mental mistake on defense. That’s why keeping Drummond’s offensive role simple is so important for his overall development, so that instead of trying to keep up with complicated reads on both ends of the floor, Drummond can primarily reserve his focus for his defensive responsibilities.
While it’s tempting to play the rookie center more minutes because of his great start, it’s important to remember that Drummond’s success is partially a product of circumstance. Substantial minutes outside of the freewheeling bench lineup aiding his progress may have an adverse effect. The best course of action for the team going forward is to keep Drummond’s role limited throughout this season, even at the cost of a few wins, to ensure they don’t overwhelm him.
It certainly seems like an overly protective approach, but given that Drummond and the Pistons’ two other young franchise cornerstones, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe, are all younger than 22, time is certainly on their side. By exercising a little patience now, “fun” could again become an operative word in Detroit.