AUBURN HILLS – For all the hype surrounding NBA free agency and the mega-trades that saw the likes of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler swap teams over the summer, the surest way to build a contender remains the oldest: draft well.
George and Anthony found Oklahoma City an acceptable trade destination because the Thunder hit big on Russell Westbrook nine years ago in the draft. Butler was OK with landing at another NBA outpost far removed from the glamour trail, Minnesota, because the Timberwolves picked Kevin Love and turned him into Andrew Wiggins and grabbed Karl Anthony-Towns when the once-a-generation opportunity to pick No. 1 fell into their laps.
Stan Van Gundy hasn’t had any more luck on lottery night than past Pistons regimes, but he’s turned his three No. 1 picks – No. 8, No. 18 and No. 12 – into Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.
And what he’s seen from them through three days of training camp is …
“Encouraging,” he said, drawn out for emphasis, after Thursday’s practice. “Yeah, these three days have been encouraging in that regard.”
In fact, Van Gundy said, “You could make a pretty good case that Luke and Stanley were the two best players in the scrimmage today.”
Johnson’s rookie season bristled with promise, averaging 23 minutes a game as the sixth man on a playoff team. Last year, statistically at least, saw him regress. But with Marcus Morris traded, Johnson, now 21, appears poised to get his career on the fast track this season after absorbing and applying some hard-earned lessons over a productive off-season.
“The real encouraging thing with Stanley is not just that he played well, but that he and I watched some film, specific things, and he really went out and tried to do that stuff and did it very well today,” Van Gundy said. “He’s been a little stubborn in the past and today was just right on. He was terrific.”
Van Gundy saw clear signs of a more mature Johnson over the summer, really even before the Morris trade. That’s continued into training camp with Johnson no longer showing an inclination to attempt the highlight-reel play when a more fundamentally sound approach is required.
“Today he just made solid, simple plays offensively,” Van Gundy said. “We had watched some film of when he was forcing the action and today he was really focused on making it work for his team. He made a lot of really good passes – nothing fancy, not threading the needle, just good, solid basketball plays. He hit his open shots. He just played under control the whole time. He was just really, really good.”
Kennard continues to display the things that moved the Pistons to take him in June’s lottery, poise and an advanced offensive feel to go with a deadly shooting stroke. Ellenson faces a less certain path to playing time given the depth at his natural position, power forward, but he’s got the stuff to be a potent scorer and he’s come far enough on the other end to challenge Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver for the minutes Tobias Harris is off the floor or being pushed to small forward.
Ellenson elicited high praise from Van Gundy as a rookie as early as training camp for his unique skill set at 6-foot-11 and pure scoring ability, but the differences between now and then at the defensive end jump out.
“No question,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not a lock-down defender, but he’s worked really hard to be able to play down in a stance, he’s stronger, he’s moving his feet. That’s all been really, really good. And offensively, he’s making shots, he’s putting the ball on the floor. Those three guys are all playing well.”
Van Gundy inherited Andre Drummond, the only player still left from his May 2014 hiring, and dealt for Reggie Jackson to pair him with Drummond as franchise cornerstones. There might be times as soon as this season where you’ll look out and see Johnson, Ellenson and Kennard filling out the lineup between those pillars. In an era of eight-figure contracts where the importance of hitting on draft picks and the cost certainty they afford is essential, to borrow from the man who drafted them, that’s “encouraging.”