(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a five-part series looking at the roster after a summer that saw them add five newcomers. Stan Van Gundy sees four essential position groups: centers, point guards, forwards and wings. Today’s Part III looks at the three centers on the roster.)
AUBURN HILLS – Aron Baynes was something of a security blanket for Stan Van Gundy the past two seasons, consistent in his effort and focus and by statistical measure among his most valuable defenders. He’s gone after opting out of the final year of his contract and falling victim to bad timing – after splurging the year before when the salary cap exploded due to a windfall of new TV money, fewer teams had money to spend in 2017 – and the NBA’s shifting priorities that devalue big men.
And yet the Pistons, even without Baynes, have size and options aplenty for Van Gundy in the middle.
It starts, of course, with Andre Drummond. At 24 and with five years of NBA experience on his resume, the hope is it all comes together and Drummond goes from a dominant rebounder to an elite defender and a more efficient post scorer.
That might demand streamlining his game, eliminating the deep hook shots launched from outside the paint. It won’t hurt if Reggie Jackson rebounds after an injury-marred season that diminished his dribble penetration and, in turn, cut down on Drummond’s opportunities to crash the glass as defenders were pulled to Jackson.
Depth chart: Andre Drummond, Boban Marjanovic, Eric Moreland
Options: Stan Van Gundy talked about using Jon Leuer at center last season, but it never became a staple of his rotation. That was in large part due to the presence of Aron Baynes, who gave the Pistons a physical toughness and was perhaps the player Van Gundy trusted most to carry out assignments unerringly. With Baynes departed as a free agent, there’s a much greater chance Van Gundy winds up using Leuer at center when Drummond sits – especially to match up against the increasing number of big men more comfortable away from the basket. Henry Ellenson, Van Gundy believes, can also be used that way.
Flexibility: Moreland was signed to a contract after winning a job in Summer League. With Drummond, Marjanovic and Leuer in line for minutes at center, he’ll have to bide his time to get a chance to play regularly. But he’s mobile, runs the floor extremely well and is an aggressive shot blocker. Against the dwindling number of conventional power forwards, he could be used at that position.
Bottom Line: Drummond expects a big season from himself after having surgery following the 2016-17 season to repair a deviated septum that reduced his breathing capacity to one nostril and affected his conditioning. He also worked with a shooting coach and changed his free-throw delivery to promising early results. The perception was that Drummond’s play regressed last season, though it was statistically in line with the previous season when he made the All-Star team at 22. Marjanovic impressed in a four-game stint to end last season with big scoring and rebounding numbers. Moreland has NBA experience with Sacramento and used last season in the D-League to become a more consistent producer.
“That’s going to be a big part of it with him this year,” Van Gundy said over the off-season. “To really get him to focus on the things that he does at not even a high level – at an elite level, and doing those well. So many times guys think the way to becoming great is to be able to do more and more things. In a lot of cases, it’s more doing the things that you already do at a higher level.”
Drummond’s scoring (16.2 to 13.6) and rebounding (14.8 to 13.8) decreased from 2015-16, but so did his minutes played (32.9 to 29.7) for a variety of reasons – the conditioning issues and free-throw shooting struggles among them, but also because the Pistons played an inordinate number of lopsided games over the first half of the season. His per-36 minutes numbers showed a marginal decrease in scoring (17.7 to 16.5) but increases in rebounding (16.2 to 16.7), assists (0.9 to 1.3) and steals (1.6 to 1.9).
His blocked shots were down by any measure, averaging 1.1 per game, nearly 50 percent off his rookie year number of 1.6 despite the fact he played nine more minutes per game. Given his lateral quickness and ability to get off the floor multiple times, Drummond has the potential to be a dynamic shot blocker but he’s been reluctant to challenge at the rim and leave his man unattended. A more aggressive Drummond as part of a more cohesive team defense would help the Pistons take the leap from a middle-of-the-pack defense – they actually were on the verge of a top-10 finish last season until a late downturn left them 11th in defensive efficiency – to an elite unit.
When Drummond sits this season, Van Gundy won’t have the nearly automatic choice to insert Baynes in his stead. The backup this year could wind up being situational, driven by the matchup, with Boban Marjanovic for more conventional lineups and Jon Leuer first in line against opponents that line up with stretch fives – centers more comfortable floating on the perimeter than playing in the post.
Marjanovic gave a hint of what he’s capable of doing in a late-season audition, averaging 15.8 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 59 percent over the final four games. If he can hold up defensively – lateral quickness makes it a challenge to handle the ubiquitous pick-and-roll sets infusing league offenses – Marjanovic has a chance to fill the Baynes void by himself.
But Leuer – or even Henry Ellenson – is a real option for the Pistons, each of them providing a different element with Leuer’s ability to run the floor and make plays on the move and Ellenson’s scoring and ballhandling.
That’s a lot of traffic ahead of Eric Moreland, signed after forcing the issue with an outstanding 10 days in Orlando’s Summer League. The Pistons invited him to Orlando with the idea of offering him one of the NBA’s newly created two-way contracts, but knew before leaving that Moreland would land a roster spot with somebody else if they didn’t act first. He’s athletic, plays with a high motor and helped facilitate Summer League offense with his passing and solid screening.
Van Gundy likes the mix and diversity offered by his three-man center group – not including the possibility of using Leuer and Ellenson there.
“Eric’s different than (Drummond and Marjanovic),” he said after announcing his signing in July. “Particularly Boban. Totally different player than what Eric is. Not only is Eric a very good player, I thought he was a very good complement to what we already had on our roster. Those guys are going to have to work hard every day to play him. Andre texted me right away and said, ‘I know I’m going to have to get to running to keep up.’ That’s a good thing.”