AUBURN HILLS – If the question is “who’s been Stan Van Gundy’s most consistent player?” in training camp and you get three cracks, which way are you going?
Me, I’d start with Avery Bradley or Tobias Harris, keeping in mind I get to see as much of practice as you do – none. But Bradley’s been a metronome for about five years – great defense, steadily improving offense and 3-point shooting – and Harris was the steadiest Pistons player last season.
Ish Smith would be another solid guess, a guy Van Gundy said Sunday “brings energy all the time. He has good games and bad games, but it’s really hard to point to a low-energy Ish game or low-energy Ish practice. That’s the way he goes at it all the time.”
But none of those guys earned Van Gundy’s label of most consistent through the first two weeks of the preseason.
“We’ve had a lot of guys play well throughout camp,” Van Gundy said to a question of Henry Ellenson’s 16-point performance in 17 minutes of Friday’s win over Atlanta. “But he’s probably been the most consistent of anybody. Every time we play, every time we practice, he really hasn’t had – I don’t remember a bad day since the start of camp. I think his confidence is sky high. He’s really focused on what he has to do. He’s playing very, very well.”
That’s a great sign for the future of both Ellenson and the Pistons. But it doesn’t guarantee Ellenson will get to shed his warmups in 10 days when they host Charlotte to open the Little Caesars Arena era of Pistons basketball.
Van Gundy on Sunday admitted it would be hard for all four of his power forwards – Harris, Ellenson, Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver – to be part of the everyday rotation. Harris is a lock and Leuer a heavy odds-on pick to be there. It really, likely, comes down to a choice of Tolliver or Ellenson for however many minutes are left at power forward when Harris or Leuer aren’t playing there.
Because Harris will get some minutes at small forward – perhaps as much as half of his time – and because Leuer is likely to at least time-share with Boban Marjanovic as Andre Drummond’s backup at center, there is a need for a third power forward.
For as well as Ellenson has played – very well, as best illustrated by the four different ways he scored on four consecutive possessions on Friday in a two-minute span – Tolliver remains the safer bet to play on opening night.
That’s based on nothing Van Gundy has said – because he’s said consistently over the past few weeks, even before camp’s first practice, that he was more open to lineup possibilities than he’d ever been as an NBA coach.
“It’s very, very competitive right now,” he said. “I still don’t really have a great idea of who’s going to play.”
So why am I guessing Tolliver over Ellenson?
Despite the fact Ellenson is the more versatile scorer with a higher ceiling, Tolliver is the more proven 3-point shooter. Van Gundy revealed an interesting statistical nugget in talking about how the Pistons addressed a moribund 3-point attack, one that finished 28th in accuracy and 26th in attempts last season – a recipe for subpar offense in today’s 3-point-happy era.
There were less than 40 players in the NBA last season, Van Gundy said, who averaged two made triples per 36 minutes while making at least 39 percent. The Pistons acquired three of them over the summer: Bradley, Tolliver and Langston Galloway.
The only way those three have an impact on improved 3-point shooting – and, critically, on more attempts – is to play. So Tolliver over Ellenson and Galloway over another impressive young Pistons player, Luke Kennard, is a probability.
One other factor that tips the scale toward Tolliver: defense. Van Gundy has seen noticeable gains from Ellenson in areas of physical strength and defensive instincts since last season, but Tolliver is a rock-solid defender who is as assignment sure as anyone on the roster.
And if there’s a tiebreaker needed, consider this: It’s always a little easier to go first with the veteran and bring in the young guy than the other way around.
No matter how it rolls out on Oct. 18, Van Gundy remains bullish on Ellenson’s future.
“He is really a highly skilled player and he’s getting stronger and that guy wants to be a basketball player,” he said. “Everybody does to some degree, but I’m not sure Henry really has a lot of interest in anything else. It’s being a basketball player and his family and that’s it. I don’t think Henry’s interested in living the big lifestyle or any of that. He puts everything into wanting to be a player and he’s thinking about it all the time. He’s taking care of himself.
“That guy wants to be a player. He’s got size and skill. I said it last year, when we didn’t play him – I’m going to be surprised if he’s not a good player. He just had so far to go physically last year and he still has a ways to go. But he’s getting closer to being physically ready and his approach is everything you could ask for.”
He’s 20. In another day, he’d be getting ready for his junior year at Marquette. The smart bet is on Tolliver to get first crack at leftover minutes at power forward. But if Ellenson’s time isn’t now – right now, immediately – it’s not all that far away.