AUBURN HILLS – If you believe in karma, then the first week of Pistons training camp is one they were owed by the basketball gods. From all accounts – the public comments from Stan Van Gundy and his players to the things the coaches and teammates are saying to each other behind the scenes – the week went about as well as anyone dared hope.
That doesn’t mean the basketball played at the Pistons practice facility was always flawless. Van Gundy lamented a rash of turnovers that plagued every scrimmage after Saturday’s nearly 3½-hour session concluded to end the first week of camp.
But on every other front, it was a rousing success. That starts with a clean injury report. Reggie Jackson and Langston Galloway are being eased back in off of knee issues – Jackson with tendinosis and Galloway a bone bruise – and they’re going light on Boban Marjanovic, coming off the grind of EuroBasket play with the Serbian national team. Other than that, Jon Leuer pulled out of Friday’s practice with a slight ankle sprain, but was back Saturday and “was outstanding,” Van Gundy said.
Contrast that to the way last season’s first week of camp ended – with the thud of Jackson, after a handful of dazzling days, being diagnosed with tendinosis that required something beyond mere rest. It caused teeth gnashing at the time, but even then no one was guessing it would cast a shadow over the entire season and reduce Jackson’s effectiveness as dramatically as it did after returning 21 games into the regular season.
So that’s the best news of the week. Jackson was held out of full participation in practice until Friday, came through that with no red flags and then looked like his old self in Saturday’s scrimmage. Asked who caught his eye, Van Gundy named Jackson first.
“Reggie looked really good in his minutes,” he said. “Granted, he hasn’t been through the grind like some of these guys this week – a little fresh – and he only played 19 minutes. But he played those minutes very well and pretty much exactly how we’d like him to play. That was outstanding.”
Here’s another handful of reasons it was a week that casts the 2017-18 in a golden light:
Andre Drummond put to action what he and his teammates had surmised was coming after an off-season of work revealed in his physical appearance. He’s in great shape and, of even more promise, he’s spoken openly about recognizing he needed a better demeanor and more focus than he exhibited last season. A more focused Drummond – and Van Gundy lauded his focus in every assessment of him through the first week – is right in line behind a healthy Jackson for keys to the season.
Avery Bradley’s impact is real. The respect he had on walking through the door is palpable. The expectation is that his defense – and beyond just his defense, but his commitment to the idea of defense – will have a catalytic effect on his teammates. A more focused Drummond in the middle and a perimeter defense sparked by Bradley will go a long way toward establishing the elite defensive force Van Gundy has been pointing to since his arrival in May 2014.
The last three No. 1 picks – Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard – have all come out of the gate at full pace. Johnson, like Drummond, seems strikingly more mature after an off-season of reflection. Ellenson took the necessary steps in strength gain to elevate his defensive capability to the point that he’s a contender for minutes at the team’s most stacked position, power forward. And Kennard has struck all as incredibly crafty on offense and poised beyond all reason for a rookie. “I call him ‘Cool Hand Luke’ ” Jackson said.
Tobias Harris is almost a forgotten man with all the attention on Jackson’s health, Bradley’s arrival, Drummond’s demeanor and the promise of the three youngest Pistons, but he’s another who used last season’s disappointment to fuel his off-season drive. And there was nothing about Harris’ 2016-17 season that was disappointing; he was, hands down, the most consistent Piston. But, as he said, “it’s just about winning now.” “He’s been one of our best players,” Van Gundy said. “He’s in great shape. He can score the ball and he’s really worked hard to get ready. He’ll be one of the guys we’re going to go to.”
All those elements have contributed to a vibe that even Van Gundy admits is a little different than he’s experienced here. While acknowledging that the tests of camaraderie start when the first wave of adversity hits, Van Gundy said, “I think that the togetherness and the team feeling and their energy has been, really, really good. Really, really good.”
After the way last season spun out, karma owed the Pistons that much.