In a dazzling late-season practice show, Jackson brightens Pistons 2017-18 outlook

AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy made clear he’s not sitting on his hands this summer on the expectation that the litany of Pistons players who had subpar shooting seasons will magically turn it around next season.

Although, yeah, his expectation is that they will shoot it better. They’re adapting the way their summer shooting drills are conducted for one thing, tailoring them to each individual but in general making sure players get up 3-point shots that come closer to approximating game speed and situations.

So that’s one item to juice up an offense largely responsible for a seven-win decline from last season’s 44-38 record and a playoff berth. There are others, to be sure, and we’ll get into them over the course of the next weeks and months.

But a healthy Reggie Jackson goes a long way – a long, long way – toward dragging the Pistons from near the bottom of the NBA offensive rankings to at least the middle of the pack.

And Van Gundy has plenty of reasons to be confident that he’ll have a healthy Jackson when the Pistons reconvene at their Auburn Hills practice facility next September to prepare for their inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena.

One is the full assurance of his medical staff that Jackson is A-OK physically. To reassure everyone, a recent set of MRI tests showed a pristine left knee.

More tangible evidence came just a week ago, though. As the Pistons held their final practice of the season ahead of last weekend’s jaunt to Houston and Memphis, Jackson was running the scout team offense in a defensive drill designed to contain MVP co-favorite James Harden.

“We were working pick-and-roll defense and we put Reggie in the James Harden role,” Van Gundy said Friday as he and general manager Jeff Bower talked about the season that was and looked ahead to the heavy lifting of the off-season. “We went out there for like 45 minutes and he was unbelievable. Guys were loving playing with him. Everything was to the rim and throwing it out for threes and all the stuff he was able to do, but really focused on just attack-attack-attack and make plays.

“Everybody on our coaching staff came out of that practice saying, ‘Whoa. He was unbelievable.’ Obviously, it was half-court, but I don’t have much doubt he’ll be back to being that guy. I said to him, I honestly believe he’ll be better because of the learning experience of what he’s gone through. You go through something like that, it tends to mature you. I’m excited for what he’ll be able to do next year. I think he’ll be even better than he was two years ago.”

The Pistons go into the summer without much in the way of cap space but also without an obvious roster hole. Van Gundy left little doubt that they’ll do what must be done to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a restricted free agent. Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson, the backup guards, are both under contract.

In the frontcourt, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer are all signed for multiple seasons. Boban Marjanovic showed plenty over the season’s final four games to solidify his standing as the replacement for backup center Aron Baynes, likely to opt out of his contract and attract offers too rich for the Pistons’ ability to retain him. Rookie Henry Ellenson is in line for an expanded role with both he and Leuer capable of playing in stretch-five situations.

The Pistons also have a 93 percent probability of picking 12th in the June draft, where Bower feels the likelihood of landing a very good player is high, plus the mid-level exception to use in free agency. Bower said the Pistons are likely to use it, probably on more than one player, and doesn’t anticipate that using it will push the Pistons over the luxury-tax line even after resolving Caldwell-Pope’s contract situation.

“I still like our group. I really do,” Van Gundy said. “I’d never come out and say we’re going to make a major move because those are always hard to make. I also don’t think we need a bombshell move. There’s a couple of things we’d like to do to make us a little bit better, but I don’t think we’re broken. Getting our point guard situation back to where it was or even better is more than feasible and corrects a great deal of the problems we’re talking about. And I think our roster is pretty good from there.

“And guys are certainly still in that window of being capable of making a lot of improvement. We’ve seen it from other teams. I think our guys are profoundly disappointed at what happened this year and scarred a little bit and willing to make some changes.”

Someone asked him if Jackson would be like a pitcher who lost his fastball and had to learn to get batters out another way.

“That is a good analogy,” Van Gundy said, “but Reggie will get his fastball back and having learned to pitch a little bit better, also.”

His teammates all endured their own bouts of adversity this season, too, some of it tied to adjusting to life without Jackson running the show. They’ll all have their own to-do lists this summer in order to come back better players, but maybe they all will also have added an extra pitch or two to their arsenal, as well.

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