AUBURN HILLS – Of all years for the NBA to stretch out its regular season and compress its preseason by way of accommodation, it wasn’t ideal timing for the 2017-18 iteration of Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons.
With 14 players Van Gundy says are worthy of consideration for a rotation spot and only five preseason games to judge them, the math doesn’t work. And nowhere is it a more challenging equation than at power forward.
“I really need to figure out lineups and rotations,” Van Gundy said before Wednesday’s preseason opener. “I think that’s the big thing for me. With having Avery (Bradley) and Langston (Galloway) and Luke (Kennard) and Henry (Ellenson) sort of emerging and Anthony Tolliver back, we’ve got a lot of new people and a lot of depth. Which is a blessing, but trying to figure out how they fit together best is not going to be easy. We’ll certainly need the rest of these two weeks leading into the first game to do that.”
Players, of course, can make Van Gundy’s decisions clearer for him by playing their way out of consideration. But nobody did that in the opener. As for Van Gundy’s assessment of Ellenson as “sort of emerging,” well, the 20-year-old poked his head a little further out of the sand in his second-season debut.
Ellenson, most definitely, did not play his way out of consideration in scoring 10 points, hitting two triples and making two eye-opening plays off the dribble that yielded four points for Andre Drummond.
Van Gundy was not even a little surprised.
“Henry played well,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “Henry’s played well all throughout camp. Not like he just came out of nowhere to play in the game. He’s been doing that on a consistent basis, so I’m really happy with what he’s doing.”
Van Gundy says he’d like to get to the Charlotte opener on Oct. 18 at Little Caesars Arena with a core of eight or nine guys he plans to use every night – at least initially – and then everybody else will be used as needed. Asked if Ellenson and Boban Marjanovic would be in the latter pool, he responded:
“I don’t know. Henry’s looking like a guy who maybe should be playing all the time. We’ve got two more weeks before we make a decision and I’m pretty open-minded right now.”
Ellenson is a member of the deepest position group on the team. Anthony Tolliver wasn’t used Wednesday, but read nothing into that if you’re formulating an opening-night rotation.
“As far as evaluating guys, A.T. may be the least of the guys to evaluate,” Van Gundy said. “He fits with everybody because he’s smart, he moves the ball and he can shoot. He’s going to help your lineups play well. I know who he is.”
But Van Gundy says all three of the options at that position behind presumptive starter Tobias Harris – Ellenson, Tolliver and Jon Leuer – help offensively in their own ways. One way to exploit their ability more is to use Harris at small forward, though Van Gundy is also determined to use smaller lineups that would see Luke Kennard or Avery Bradley guarding small forwards.
“The thing with Tobias at the three, what it allows us to do is get that group of fours on the floor more and those guys really help our offense,” he said. “I think Henry, A.T., Jon, those guys in various ways all really help our offense. I think (Harris’) comfort zone is more as a four right now and that’s fine. If we find certain things for him as a three, I think we can get him into his comfort zone there, too.”
Ellenson’s unique ability to make plays off the dribble as a virtual 7-footer would complement virtually any lineup Van Gundy concocts. His off-season focus on adding strength makes him a more viable defender in year two, as he’s shown over the week-plus of training camp.
“So far during camp, I felt like I’ve competed well,” he said. “Like Coach said, the four is probably the deepest spot we have. Everyone kind of has a little different skill set. We all bring something else, but I’ve just gone into it competing every practice, trying to get better and show what I can do.”
Sounds like he’s going to continue to get opportunities over the last dozen days available to continue making his case.