AUBURN HILLS – Reggie Jackson leads the Pistons in assists, just as you’d expect, and Ish Smith is second, also according to form. Andre Drummond is No. 3 and … whoa! Andre Drummond is No. 3?
Yes, indeed. And things might not look all that different after 82 games than after 10.
“We’re playing through him a lot,” Stan Van Gundy said before Drummond chalked up five more assists against the Lakers last week. “Our approach in the off-season was to try to zero in on our guys’ strengths and play through them. Andre is a very good ballhandler, passer. He can drive the ball to the basket. He can make plays out on the perimeter. We’re trying to utilize that, so he has the ball in his hands quite a bit.”
He picked up four more assists in Saturday’s win over Sacramento – the four assists getting a bit lost in the 19 rebounds and 16 points – and that puts his average through 10 games at 2.7, more than triple his career average of 0.8.
That change might be the most noticeable – well, except for the 75 percent free-throw marksmanship – but it’s part of an across-the-board evolution in Drummond’s game that sprang from various motivations. A big one was Drummond’s summer of self-reflection that saw him arrive at training camp talking openly of accepting more leadership responsibility and needing to do the things Van Gundy had painted as his potential since arriving on the job 3½ years ago.
At the core of it, perhaps, is inching closer to the consistency of high-effort outings. Some of it, to be sure, was the off-season surgery Drummond had to correct a nasal issue that affected his breathing, but another part of it was the mental discipline to push through fatigue and the willpower to maintain peak conditioning levels – things almost all young players that come to the NBA only acquire through the rigors of experience. That 16-point, 19-rebound, 36-minute outing against the Kings, don’t forget, was the night after Drummond starred in a win over Milwaukee with 24 points and 15 boards.
The Pistons have changed the way they play at both ends of the floor this season – more aggressive on defense, resulting in a No. 4 ranking in creating turnovers so far, and more of a share-the-burden philosophy on offense instead of putting the onus of creating scoring opportunities solely on their point guards. They’ve asked Drummond to be more aggressive on pick and rolls 20 feet and more from the rim and more active defending the rim while also altering his role offensively – fewer shots outside the paint, more movement and ballhandling, more hard rolls to the rim.
Drummond’s buy-in is critical at both ends and Van Gundy is as encouraged by what he’s gotten on that front as by anything else in the Pistons promising 7-3 start.
“Really happy with the way he’s played,” he said during the three-game road trip that saw the Pistons beat Western Conference heavyweights Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers. “If you want to notice a negative, his turnovers are up but that’s because he has the ball all the time. We’ve never played through our center the way we’re playing through our centers so. He’s going to have the ball a lot and I think he’s just going to get better as time goes on.”
Drummond has relished the opportunity to “get my guys shots,” as he put it, and it sent a message at Golden State when Van Gundy played him all 24 minutes of the second half despite Drummond enduring a 4 of 17 shooting night.
“When I thought about taking him out, he really wanted to be in there. ‘No, no, no. I’m good. I want to go,’ ” Van Gundy recounted. “Also, I wanted him to get the idea that he was on a 4 for 17 night and we left him out there. We had one timeout and I told him, ‘I’m not worried about that,’ and his teammates all chimed in. ‘Just keep playing,’ and I don’t think anything makes that statement more than leaving him in the game. I thought he was playing really hard.”
Drummond finished the game with 18 rebounds, five steals and five assists. A night earlier, in the win over the Clippers, he put up 15 points, 17 boards, three blocks and two steals and Van Gundy called it one of his best all-around games during their time together.
“What’d he say?” Drummond replied when informed of his coach’s assessment. “Just a complete game. The way we played, the way we came out with intensity, effort, energy on both ends of the floor to make them uncomfortable in the second half really speaks to what our team really is. We’re a defensive team first and it really showed tonight.”
As recently as last season, the type of shooting night Drummond had against the Warriors likely would have spilled over into other parts of his game. Van Gundy almost lost an arm a few times in their past, after Drummond would miss a shot and hang his head for a split-second while the opposition raced off in transition, motioning for his center to sprint back on defense. Those instances have been virtually non-existent this season.
“I just want his mentality to stay even keel,” Van Gundy said. “I saw a big step forward in terms of his maturity the other night and if he stays with that and he’s playing a lot harder on a more consistent basis. I thought that was really, really good. I like what he’s doing.”