AUBURN HILLS – You’re never going to convince Stan Van Gundy of tanking’s merits, but he’ll grant that it pays the occasional dividend. The Pistons have seen three of them over their past two games and get another glimpse in their next one.
On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, it was Kristaps Porzingis going off for 33 points – scoring inside, outside and at the foul line. On Monday at Little Caesars Arena, they got eyefuls of both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who combined for 51 points on 19 of 26 shooting with Simmons recording a triple-double. And on Wednesday at home, it’ll be Karl-Anthony Towns’ turn in the spotlight when the Pistons host Minnesota, which has another rising star in Andrew Wiggins.
If the NBA wanted to videotape a spot to sell the league’s future, Adam Silver might have merely assigned a camera crew to tag along with the Pistons for the season’s first week. In Wiggins, Towns and Simmons, the Pistons will have seen the No. 1 overall picks in the 2016, ’15 and ’14 drafts.
Embiid, who was picked third in 2014, very likely would have been the No. 1 pick that season but for concerns over a back injury that limited his only season at Kansas. Porzingis, the fourth pick in 2015, would go no worse than second in a redraft, right behind Towns.
“He’s very unique,” Van Gundy said of Embiid and his 30-point outburst against the Pistons. “Last couple of games, we’ve seen three of probably the most unique talents in the league and then we see another one tomorrow night in Towns.
“Porzingis, at 7-3, doing what he does on the perimeter and then Ben Simmons, at his size as a point guard, Embiid, at his size – bigger than Andre (Drummond) and able to shoot the three and play off the dribble and score in the post. And then another guy a lot like him in Towns tomorrow night. These are some of the most unique young talents in the league. We’ve had trouble, obviously, with all three of them.”
Drummond did wind up with four steals to lead a defense that forced Embiid into seven turnovers. Drummond grew more comfortable with Embiid as the game unfolded in guarding a player he’d seen only briefly, in a 2016 preseason game. Embiid sat out the first two seasons with foot injuries and was limited to 30 games last year with a knee issue.
“He’s been in the league four years now. He’s only played about 20, 30-plus games,” Drummond said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s like you don’t know what to expect when you play against a guy like that. When you only see him on film you don’t know what it’s like to actually play him. That first half was tough for me to really get adjusted to him, but the second half I think I did a better job on him.”
Embiid’s a legitimate 7-footer and thick-bodied but with quick feet and good ballhandling skills with 3-point range, is a talent of such tantalizing potential that the 76ers this month signed him to a maximum extension that will pay the 23-year-old native of Cameroon $148 million over the next five seasons.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you’re guarding him,” Drummond said. “You never know if he’s going to turn around, face up and shoot it or if he’s going to drive the basketball. Just got to stay on your toes when you’re guarding him.”
Reggie Jackson was equally impressed with Simmons, who missed all of what would have been his rookie season with a foot injury. Simmons, 6-foot-10, guards power forwards but serves as point guard within Philadelphia’s half-court offense. The Pistons opened the game with Stanley Johnson guarding him, but had their power forwards – Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver – take turns in the second half.
“I think of him as a player, as a playmaker,” Jackson said. “Once he gets down in the paint, he plays amazing. He’s ambidextrous. He can shoot with either hand, especially once he gets below the (dotted lines inside the lane). And being 6-10, he can see over everybody. His passing lanes are a little different than everybody’s.”
Embiid, too, impressed Jackson.
“I think everybody saw it. He hasn’t played much, but when he does he wows everybody. He’s a tough matchup.”