DETROIT – Stan Van Gundy would like to get to a level of certainty with his rotation. But permanence probably isn’t happening.
There are too many moving parts to it and too little separation between rungs on the Pistons depth chart for anything to be etched in stone. Van Gundy mused about potential starting lineup changes after Monday’s lethargic loss to Philadelphia, but the far greater likelihood is the rotation stays in flux and the starters remain intact.
But perhaps a little clarity, however fleeting, was achieved with Wednesday’s runaway win over Minnesota. For now, the core bench appears to be Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway and Henry Ellenson.
That means Leuer will get the majority of his minutes behind Andre Drummond at center, as he’s done the past 2½ games, which eases the logjam at power forward and opens a path for Ellenson.
Van Gundy pretty clearly hinted at Ellenson’s elevation before the 21-point win over the Timberwolves when he said, “The guy who has been effective throughout the preseason and I gave him one chance to play and he was effective was Henry. And then I haven’t gotten back to him. That’s hard to explain – even for me.”
Ellenson scored 13 points in the season-opening win over Charlotte, then played only briefly in the first half of their win at New York over the next three games. Despite shooting just 2 of 7 from the 3-point arc – and those seven clean looks and near misses will leave an impression on Van Gundy as surely as anything else Ellenson accomplished in his 14-point, five-rebound outing against Minnesota – Van Gundy didn’t hesitate to endorse what he saw from his youngest player.
And he left little doubt Ellenson is going to get more leash now.
“I thought he played really well. Even when he was missing shots, I thought he hung in there. He had five defensive rebounds. I thought he went in there and battled.”
Van Gundy and his staff, in their daily pre-practice meetings, kept coming back to one thing with Ellenson that ultimately pushed informed his decision to bite the bullet and live with some of the 20-year-old’s learning on the job.
“One of the reasons that you’ve got to find a way to play him as a young guy – we have a team that works hard, good practice team, and we have a team that will focus in on improvement, but nobody more so than Henry. Whatever it is you’re working on, that guy is locked in and trying to get better. So I think he’s just going to keep getting better and better and we’re going to put up with some growing pains. There may be some nights where the matchup just doesn’t work, but we’ve got to give him a chance here.”
Van Gundy knows what he has in Anthony Tolliver, who saved Saturday’s game at New York – after not having played in the first two games – when he entered late in the first half shortly after the Pistons had fallen 21 points behind.
“Easy for me to go with the veteran guy because I know what I’m going to get there, but (Ellenson) has done literally everything we’ve asked. He’s earned his chance. He’s earned it for four weeks here. He’s been consistent every day in practice. He played well in the preseason. He’s earned his right to go out there and play and I was sort of kicking myself.”
With the Pistons coming off a stretch of playing three of the league’s brightest young stars – Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns – Van Gundy sees Ellenson as from a similar mold. Asked about Ellenson’s drive and one-handed dunk that put a jolt in the Pistons bench after Wednesday’s win, Van Gundy said:
“I wouldn’t call Henry a high flyer, but he’s almost 7 feet tall. That’s the thing. He doesn’t get talked about as much as the other guys because he hasn’t played as much, but he’s one of this new breed of big guys – 6-11, 7 feet – that can shoot the ball, put it on the floor. Henry can do a lot of things offensively. Can pass off the dribble.”
A second unit with Leuer and Ellenson as the big men gives the Pistons a vastly different look. They combined for 14 rebounds in 40 minutes against Minnesota and Leuer’s defensive versatility allows Van Gundy some matchup flexibility for Ellenson.
On the perimeter, Galloway got the call over Luke Kennard. That’s probably the spot with the greatest potential to change game to game at this point. And Reggie Bullock has served out his five-game suspension, which makes it virtually a dead heat among the three for first call behind Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson.
Bullock’s greater size and proven 3-point shooting are attractive. He further helped his cause by drawing Van Gundy’s praise in preseason for his defense. He might be folded in as a 10th man in the rotation quickly, especially with the Pistons facing a back to back against the Clippers and Warriors to start their West Coast trip.
While the race for playing time will be ongoing, for now a few questions are settled. The biggest one at present is the jockeying among Galloway, Kennard and Bullock on the wings.