AUBURN HILLS – Aron Baynes was perhaps the Pistons player Stan Van Gundy trusted most to carry out a game plan with maximum focus and effort the past two years. His departure leaves a void. Boban Marjanovic provides 7-foot-4 inches and 290 pounds to fill it.
It might not be quite as neat and clean as Marjanovic being plugged in to Baynes’ role as Andre Drummond’s everyday backup. Van Gundy envisions Marjanovic and Jon Leuer, primarily a power forward, as “a two-headed monster” behind Drummond – Leuer to guard the more mobile centers comfortable shooting from the perimeter, Marjanovic against more conventional big men.
But Van Gundy is eager to force the issue more this season and not habitually yank Marjanovic from games any time the opposition goes the other way.
“I don’t want to be in situations where I’m making an immediate response to a team going small and I just reflexively take him out of the game,” Van Gundy said. “That no matter what we’re doing defensively, that we give him a chance.”
Because what Van Gundy suspected last summer when the Pistons signed Marjanovic to a three-year contract after one lightly used season of NBA experience in San Antonio – that he was a unique offensive force – proved true in spot duty last season.
Look at the Serbian native’s per-36 numbers: 23.5 points and 16.0 rebounds.
In a four-game trial run to end season, with the Pistons having fallen out of playoff contention, Marjanovic contributed at that pace in a broader role than he’ll likely have even if he establishes himself as solidly in the rotation as Baynes did. In 22.5 minutes a game, Marjanovic averaged 15.8 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 59 percent and making 11 of 13 free throws.
“You don’t want to put too much on those four games because they weren’t meaningful games for us,” Van Gundy said. “At the same time, basketball is basketball. And he was out there playing and playing very effectively. And it wasn’t just those four games, let’s face it.”
Indeed, when Baynes sat for one of the rare times of his two-year Pistons tenure with a sprained ankle in a January win over Charlotte, Marjanovic, who turns 29 next week, responded with 15 points and 19 rebounds in 22 minutes. He had 13 and 11 in 16 minutes against Golden State and 15 points in a quarter at Orlando.
“So you’re not just going on those four games,” Van Gundy said. “The questions are going to be how it holds up over time and how many minutes he can take on a nightly basis. Those we don’t know, but we do know that he’s got unbelievable size and skill and that’s a pretty good combination.”
To be sure, Marjanovic’s hands are as soft as they are massive. Shake hands with him – and Marjanovic is a most enthusiastic people person and a fan favorite who’ll become a rock star if he becomes a regular and consistent force – and his middle and index fingers come half way up your forearm. His shooting touch is incongruous for one of the largest players in NBA history – and not just around the rim, but out to 18 to 20 feet. He can dunk by going up on the tips of his toes and has blocked shots without leaving his feet.
All of that can be unleashed on the NBA with regularity if Marjanovic can do enough at the defensive end to allow the Pistons to capably compete in an era of relentless pick-and-roll sets engineered by offenses employing multiple ballhandlers and precious few traditional big men.
And Van Gundy intends to use him often enough this season to get to the answer. He mused as last season wound down that it would be on him over the summer to concoct defensive schemes that allow the Pistons to mask whatever deficiencies Marjanovic might have at that end so they can fully exploit his offensive upside.
“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that,” Van Gundy said. “It may be different really late in games where you’re up six with two minutes to go. We may want to have better coverage on threes. But over the course of the game, (make decisions) where it’s not a reflex or a guy comes in and hits one three, a five man, and you’re like, ‘We’ve got to get him out.’
“No, number one, stick with it. Number two, let’s have some schematic options to change before let’s make the third choice to maybe take him out. But not the first choice. And to understand that, OK, yeah, maybe they can pick and pop their five man, but at the other end, they’ve still got to guard him, too. And that proved very difficult for people to do last year.”