ORLANDO – The Pistons weren’t yet officially eliminated from the playoffs with four games to go when Stan Van Gundy – his team mired in a 2-10 stretch that doomed what seemed a star-crossed season since Reggie Jackson’s knee injury before training camp’s first week was in the books – made a call.
Henry Ellenson and Boban Marjanovic were going to get a shot, and not just token minutes, over the season’s final four games.
What they did over those four games will be taken in context, of course, but their performances just might give Van Gundy confidence that they should be in line for more than token minutes next season, as well.
In 23 minutes a game, Marjanovic averaged 15.8 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field and 85 percent at the foul line. And the more the Pistons get him the ball around the rim, the more he’s going to get fouled. As Van Gundy said early on after observing the difficulty Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes had defending him, “You have two choices when Boban gets the ball near the basket: foul him or watch him score.”
“The guy’s an offensive force,” Van Gundy said after Marjanovic put 14 points and 11 boards on Orlando with three blocks in 21 minutes. “And he can do more than we had him do. We haven’t had a guy like him, so we didn’t do a lot of cutting off the post. He can really pass. I think he can create some easy baskets, which we need to get, especially with the way we miss jump shots. We’ve really got to work on that.”
Ellenson also showed well, averaging 9.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, the latter an especially encouraging number. Van Gundy and his staffers are emphatically sold on Ellenson’s offensive skill set. The key to Ellenson forcing his way into the rotation next season will be his ability to defend and rebound. And he knows it – another factor that has the Pistons sold on his future, a self-awareness coupled with a work ethic to identify his weaknesses and put in the work to hone them.
“I think that’s going to be huge for me, just being in the weight room,” Ellenson said after being challenged to guard the athletically explosive Aaron Gordon at times in Wednesday’s finale. “Working on squats and getting my legs stronger and being able to guard those quicker four guys like Aaron Gordon tonight.”
For a team that finished with the NBA’s 25th-ranked offense, the punch that Marjanovic and Ellenson can provide will give Van Gundy plenty to ponder as he cobbles together a playbook for the 2017-18 season.
“Very talented. They can play,” Reggie Jackson said of the pair. “Especially on the offensive end, they can put the ball in the basket. We struggled this year a little bit with that. I know they can help us with that. They showed they’re contributing players in this league and that they’re special.”
Ellenson commiserated with fellow rookie Stephen Zimmerman of Orlando, a friend and rival from their days on the AAU circuit, for having to guard Marjanovic in Wednesday’s fourth quarter.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, Zim, it doesn’t matter who they put on him. I’ve seen the last four games. I’ve seen all year during practice. He’s tough to guard.’ There’s no one really who can stop Boban. You have to throw a whole team at him. You can only try to shove him. Boban is what he is – just a force.”
Because Marjanovic was idle most games as Van Gundy went with Drummond and Baynes, he didn’t design schemes at either end of the floor with him in mind. That will change for next season, he said.
“This is a fault of ours, I guess. We really didn’t build anything around him either offensively or defensively,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to do some defensive things to help him and we’ve got to get him the ball even more offensively. But he was our third center and so we didn’t build enough around him. But we certainly will going forward.”
Assuming Jackson is back at full throttle next season, Ish Smith could be running a second unit with Marjanovic and Ellenson as attractive frontcourt scoring options for a point guard whose inclination is to get scorers involved.
“Henry can shoot the ball and we tell him all the time, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And then Boban, Coach says it all the time: You can’t teach 7-3, touch, skill, great footwork,” Smith said. “And he knows how to play the game. So when you have those two, they just kind of grew up in front of our eyes the last four games.”
The 37-win season will be remembered more for its disappointments and failings than its euphoric moments. But in the ruin of the home stretch, when the Pistons fell out of the race in an Eastern Conference field that appears wide open, the postscript with staying power might well be the emergence of Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson as the tonic for an ailing offense.