AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy will have decisions to make up and down the roster, but nowhere like at power forward.
A healthy Reggie Jackson will play 30 to 32 minutes at point guard with Ish Smith soaking up pretty much everything else. Avery Bradley probably will wind up leading the Pistons in minutes played as their shooting guard with Van Gundy needing to figure out if it’s all Langston Galloway behind him or if Luke Kennard or Reggie Bullock have a role there, too, perhaps in the three-guard lineups Van Gundy expects to employ more frequently.
Whether Stanley Johnson starts or comes off the bench, he’s the front-runner to take most of the minutes at small forward. Tobias Harris is going to get 30 minutes a night and could wind up splitting his time over both forward positions again.
Andre Drummond, of course, again will grab the lion’s share of minutes at center.
What’s left at power forward – subtracting the minutes Harris plays – could include any one or all three of Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver and Henry Ellenson.
Leuer is first in line and might, in fact, wind up a starter again. He was terrific for the first half of the 2016-17 season, then not nearly as effective over the final few months. Van Gundy expects more of the guy who averaged 11.2 points and 5.7 rebounds before the All-Star break while shooting 33 percent from the 3-point arc – even that was well below his 38 percent from the previous season – than the player who slumped to 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds on 20 percent 3-point shooting after the break.
“I do and I think there’s some things we can put in, in some situations, that play to his strengths a little bit better than I did last year,” Van Gundy said. “I also think Jon now comes into the year a little bit more equipped for playing the kind of minutes he did.”
Van Gundy targeted Leuer in free agency in 2016 after having a fondness for him since Van Gundy was coaching in Orlando and Leuer was a second-round rookie with Milwaukee in 2011. They liked Leuer for a lot of reasons – his athleticism and length as a power forward, his defensive aptitude, his 3-point potential, his ability to run the floor – and noted that whenever he’d been given a regular spot in the rotation, he’d thrived.
But he’d never held a regular spot in the rotation over a full season and, Van Gundy believes, that required an adjustment period now behind Leuer.
“His approach in the summer has been to take his conditioning and get his body to a new level and at the same time make sure he’s balancing that with the rest he needs,” Van Gundy said. “Jon hadn’t played over 1,800 minutes before and he had that by the All-Star break. That’s a significant difference, to have a third of your season left and you’re already at a career high. So if you’re tired, now shots that were going in earlier are hitting the front rim. I think he’ll be a little bit more ready for that this year, so I think he’ll have a great year.”
Van Gundy views Leuer as a player qualified to start, which he did in 34 games last season after coming off the bench to start the year. Van Gundy made the move initially to get more advantageous defensive matchups at power forward, which could again lead him to start Leuer and either bring Harris’ scoring punch off the bench or flop him to small forward.
But Van Gundy also has another role in mind for the 6-foot-11 Leuer this season: center. He played it sparingly last season, but Van Gundy expects “a lot more” of it this season with Leuer as a routine option when the opposition goes with a perimeter-oriented center that proves a tough cover for Boban Marjanovic, who’ll also have an elevated role this season.
It was in part because of Van Gundy’s intent for Leuer spending more time at center that the Pistons completed their roster by bringing back the player Leuer essentially replaced in the rotation last season, Anthony Tolliver.
“Absolutely,” Van Gundy said. “We felt like we needed another forward. Again, there were three things going into the summer. We were looking to improve our competitiveness and toughness, number one; our 3-point shooting, number two; and our ability to make plays off the dribble, number thee. AT obviously takes care of two of those. He’s a tough, competitive guy who’s primarily a four but has guarded some threes pretty well in the past and select fives he can guard, particularly the teams that are putting fives on the floor who want to play away from the basket.”
Then there’s Ellenson, who opened eyes in Orlando for his shot-making ability at all three levels and whom Van Gundy declared “ready to play” after Summer League. He, like Leuer, can also play center in certain matchups.
Harris, Leuer, Tolliver, Ellenson – four distinctly different players, each lending a different texture to the lineups Van Gundy might concoct around them. Sorting out the options at that position will occupy a disproportionate chunk of Pistons preseason.