ORLANDO – Michael Gbinije understands the logic behind the question. With a July 15 deadline for the Pistons to fully guarantee his 2017-18 contract, it stands to reason he’d be under pressure to perform over the Pistons 10 days in Orlando for Summer League.
“There should be,” he acknowledges, “and whatever happens, happens. But I can only control what I do on the court and how I prepare for it. That’s just been my focus. I’m just trying to come out here, play my game and have fun.”
The Pistons are in something of a roster crunch. If Gbinije is in the mix, they’re at 12 with a clear need for No. 3s on the depth chart at both point guard and center to get to 14. It sounds like that’s where they’d like to keep the roster, too, given the added wrinkle for next season that allows teams to sign two “two-way” contracts – players who are limited to 45 days with the parent NBA team during the G League calendar but effectively serve as emergency fill-ins.
Having one open roster spot allows for flexibility to sign someone who blows up in the G League, becomes available suddenly from other NBA teams or provides flexibility in case 2-for-1 trade opportunities arise.
So Gbinije grasps that he’s in a different spot today than a year ago, when the Pistons had a second-round pick invested in him and every reason to allow a rookie season to prove himself.
He was well on his way to doing that, too, but every time he appeared on the verge of winning playing time a fluke or nagging injury popped up.
There was a deep bone bruise in his forearm suffered while dunking in practice that kept him out nearly a month, a badly sprained ankle, a jammed wrist and a broken nose.
“It definitely was (frustrating), but you learn a lot just sitting out and even sitting out the whole year when I was healthy, just watching those guys and watching the ups and downs of the season, you just learn a lot,” Gbinije said. “I matured on and off the court and just looking forward to showcasing what I can do.”
Stan Van Gundy saw Gbinije’s 3-and-D potential last year, often citing his ability to move his feet on the perimeter as perhaps the best on the team and lauding his passing, ballhandling and ability to hit open 3-point shots. But between injuries and being buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson at small forward and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard at shooting guard, Gbinije was limited to just 32 minutes over nine games as a rookie.
In 16 games with the Grand Rapids Drive, Gbinije averaged 12 points and shot 33 percent from the 3-point line.
He’s been anchored in Auburn Hills since the season ended, focused on honing his 3-point shot, getting stronger – “the weight room was non-existent for me at Syracuse,” he said – and becoming a more assertive player.
“Me and (assistant coach) Charles Klask put a lot of time in pick and roll, just perfecting the jump shot and trying to get more aggressive on the court,” Gbinije said. “That’s been a focus for me this off-season and looking to showcase that when the time comes.”
Gbinije’s appeal to the Pistons, who gave him a first-round grade in the 2016 draft, was increased by the way he handled the challenge of playing point guard unexpectedly as a Syracuse senior. They intended to give him a trial run at that spot in last year’s Summer League, but those plans were scuttled when Gbinije suffered yet another fluke injury – a sprained ankle that revealed a previously existing bone chip – in the first game. This year, he’s focused on the two wing spots.
“Just two and three, just running the wings,” Gbinije said. “It’s more natural for me and causes me to think less out there, too, so it definitely helps me out. I feel more comfortable out there, more aggressive on the court and more vocal, as well. My comfort level went up and just looking to improve each year.”
With free agency opening 17 hours before the Pistons tip off the Summer League schedule at 5 p.m. Saturday, Gbinije’s fate isn’t entirely in his hands. If the Pistons get positive feedback from a veteran wing player who can help boost their lack of perimeter shooting, they might decide they can’t commit a roster spot to Gbinije.
But the part that he can control is how he plays over the next week. While the Pistons are scouring the bargain bin for undervalued free agents, Gbinije will go about his business and hope to convince Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower that he’s the superior option. He hasn’t discussed the looming option decision with the front office, he said.
“I kind of left that to my agent to deal with. Of course, I’m aware of it. They’re obviously aware of it. Like I said, I can only control what I can control and that’s playing basketball and preparing for it. But I’m definitely going to try to work hard to take back that option.”