(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a five-part series looking at the roster after a summer that saw them add five newcomers. Stan Van Gundy sees four essential position groups: centers, point guards, forwards and wings. Today’s Part IV looks at the six wing players on the Pistons roster.)
AUBURN HILLS – For as much as the Pistons expect an improved offense this season after adding 3-point firepower and secondary ballhandlers, Stan Van Gundy always will take his chances with a top-10 defense.
Depth chart: Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Langston Galloway, Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Luis Montero
Options: Tobias Harris is likely to split his playing time, as he did a year ago, between power forward and small forward. Stan Van Gundy considers Harris a forward, not a wing, and categorized Marcus Morris similarly. The Pistons rarely played with two players Van Gundy considered wings last year, but that should be the most dramatic change in the year ahead. Harris is the only player from outside the five-man wing group that figures to draw any playing time at either shooting guard or small forward. If there’s an exception, it probably would be if Van Gundy chooses to use point guards Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith simultaneously.
Flexibility: Johnson split his time between small forward and shooting guard as a rookie, but spent far more time at shooting guard in his second season after the addition of Jon Leuer and the three-man rotation – Leuer, Harris, Morris – Van Gundy established at the two forward spots. This season, the expectation is that Johnson probably will guard the opposition’s top forward scoring threat, which means he’s more apt to play power forward than shooting guard. The Pistons chose not to sign a No. 3 point guard because of Galloway’s ability to play both backcourt spots, though Van Gundy said after signing Montero that if the Pistons add a second player to a two-way contract it would be a point guard. Smith gave the Pistons everything they asked from him last season and he’s likely to get 18 to 20 minutes a game again as Jackson’s backup. But there’s a chance – if Kennard and Bullock hold up their end – that Galloway could challenge Smith for backup point guard minutes, too. Montero, who became the first player ever signed by the Pistons to the newly created two-way contracts that allow a player to spend 45 days with the parent NBA team during the G League season, is long and agile at 6-foot-7 and is an in-your-face defender who could be used to guard as many as four positions.
Bottom Line: The addition of Bradley, Galloway and Kennard – and Van Gundy’s intent to find ways to use Bullock more consistently – gives the Pistons a significantly different look at the offensive end. Bradley and Galloway both shot 39 percent from the 3-point arc last season, well above league average, and Kennard made 11 of 23 from the arc in five Summer League games after shooting 44 percent from the shorter college distance as a Duke sophomore. Bullock was the Pistons best 3-point shooter two seasons ago when he forced his way into the rotation for the stretch drive and playoffs. Next to Reggie Jackson’s full return after injury diminished him last season, the shooting and off-the-dribble potential of this group figures to have the most impact on an improved offense.
The Pistons were close last season – they finished 11th in defensive rating – and Van Gundy can tick off a fistful of ways for improvement. It starts with doing a better job of cutting off dribble penetration and with Andre Drummond becoming a menacing rim protector.
But an equally important component in an age of dynamic wing scorers across the NBA will be developing comparably dynamic wing defenders. Van Gundy knows he’s got one in hand in Avery Bradley and believes in the potential and willpower of Stanley Johnson to elevate himself to a similar plane.
Bradley was voted to the All-Defense first team in 2016 and missed last season only because injuries cost him 27 games. Much as Van Gundy used Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to guard many point guards, he’ll use Bradley similarly.
“Our plan would be that he would guard the best guard most every night, whether it’s the one or the two,” Van Gundy said of Bradley, a seven-year veteran who came to the league as a No. 1 pick after one season at Texas already cited for his defensive chops.
Van Gundy plans to use Johnson in a similar way, guarding the opposition’s best offensive forward. At 21, Johnson enters his third year coming off a disappointing season, but he’s had a positive summer by all accounts, training at the California-based P3 facility with a focus on conditioning and flexibility. He’ll need to shoot better than he did last season, when Johnson connected on just 35 percent of his shots and 29 percent of his 3-point tries, but Van Gundy wants his focus to be at the other end while he finds a niche offensively.
“Stanley’s got to latch on to what he does well right now and what he can be is an elite-level defender, an elite-level rebounder for a wing guy and he’s shown he can make the corner three and then build his offensive game from there instead of taking an approach that he wants to do it all in one step and just be a star,” Van Gundy said last month.
To accommodate Van Gundy’s plan to have Johnson guard the opposition’s top forward – and given the growing fondness across the league for playing smaller with more shooters and ballhandlers – it’s possible Johnson winds up playing often against power forwards. That will create opportunities for Van Gundy to use Reggie Bullock or Luke Kennard at small forward – or even go with Bradley and Langston Galloway at the two wing positions along with either Reggie Jackson or Ish Smith at point guard.
“The way people play smaller now, there are going to be times where you would play out there with Avery and Luke or Avery and Langston as your two and three because people aren’t playing big threes all the time,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got guys who are physically strong, can play bigger people, so I think we’ll be able to play small a lot. We’ve got to find out as we go, but all those wings I would lump in – Bullock, Luke, Langston, Avery and Stanley.
“We can play either with two of those wing guys or one of those wings and Stanley or Tobias. Could even be Stanley at the two some with Tobias at the three and be bigger. We’ve got a lot of flexibility. We’re really deep on the wings. The competition for minutes will be good.”