The Monster Potential Of Andre Drummond & Why Detroit Won’t Unleash It

Andre Drummond has been excellent through the first half of his rookie year. But he’s not getting the playing time many feel he deserves. Critics of keeping Drummond on the bench point to his high efficiency and his defensive dominance on the block. If you stretch his production to 36 minutes, he’s giving you a double-double, almost three blocks and 1.7 steals a night while shooting a ridiculous 61 percent from the floor. He’s also sporting the best PER on the team: 22.9. But the reasons behind the Pistons’ decision to bring him along slowly aren’t as preposterous as some feel.

The Detroit Pistons aren’t as bad as many thought entering the 2012-13 campaign. As of this writing, they’re 10th in the East, and just 4.5 games behind Boston for the eighth playoff spot. Since starting the season 7-21, they’ve won 10 of their last 17 games. After starting the season by losing their first eight games, that’s a nice turnaround.

In the last three years, Joe Dumars has drafted a solid core with Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Jonas Jerebko and Kyle Singler to team with title holdover Tayshaun Prince (flailing right elbow still included). True, the Pistons have been stuck in late lottery pick territory in the last few years, but Dumars has done a pretty good job identifying talent from that perch. There’s one guy, though, that could make them not just a playoff team, but culturally relevant again on the NBA landscape: Andre Drummond.

The Pistons drafted Drummond and got a freak athlete whose ceiling is more like a sun roof, and who could become a dominant low post player with yearly All-Star selections. He might also be the piece that catapults the Pistons back into the Eastern Conference elite. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN did a double take the first time he saw Drummond in person, but for all of Drummond’s athletic marvels, he’s still just a kid. Meanwhile, people expect him to be something more and to play the minutes expected from a top 10 lottery pick. Lawrence Frank has kept Andre Drummond’s minutes hovering around the 20-minute mark for the majority of the season, and it has a lot of Pistons fans upset.

It’s not just the fans, either. Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus recently wrote about Detroit expanding his role, and Dan Feldman of Pistons Powered and The Detroit Free Press believes he’s the Pistons’ best player. Like, the best, not just when you expand his numbers over 36 minutes. Better than Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey (okay, he’s better than Stuckey). But we’re talking about a half a season of work where Drummond has played under 20 minutes a game against opposing second teams. Yes, he’s been impressive, and incredibly efficient, but we’re forgetting a few things, which should be accounted for when analyzing Lawrence Frank and Joe Dumars’ decision making with their stud rookie.

Drummond’s been known to loaf on the court and take possessions off. Going into the draft, this was the primary reason he fell all the way to No. 9. He has a body that’s as impressive as anyone that’s come out in the last 10 years, and he’s so damn athletic, the first time you watch him steal the ball and go all the way to the bucket with it (outracing guards in the process), it’s hard not to stare wide eyed at your television screen and wonder whether he’s the NBA’s version of Jevon Kearse: the freak. But he’s also young, and that will play a role in his maturation, which is why his (supposed) flinty work ethic scared some teams off.

We forget how young some of the NBA’s rookies are even with the age restriction in place. For every Damian Lillard, who possesses the poise of a veteran and the ability to legally order an alcoholic beverage off the court, there’s an Andre Drummond, who won’t turn 20 until this August. That’s a teenager out there disguised as a man. The NBA isn’t just a man’s league in size and ability – it’s also a man’s league in terms of basketball IQ. Yes, some agile athletes have been able to overcome their paucity of basic basketball fundamentals and thrive — somewhat — in the NBA, but for the most part you need the size and the smarts if you really want to be something special.

And that’s precisely what Detroit wants with Andre Drummond. They want a game-changer, and that’s not likely to happen if he’s playing 30 minutes a night while getting torn up on the block by the league’s best big men. Any teenager is at a fragile crossroads, psychologically, when they’re on the edge of adulthood, and that’s where Drummond is currently standing, albeit a good foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than mere mortals. He’s a fully grown man in every regard except the most important one: in his head. That’s coming.

Here’s what Lawrence Frank said about Drumond from Haberstroh’s above piece:

“I’ll tell you what, (Drummond) went from a guy who didn’t understand screening at all, to now becoming arguably our best screener. You see the progress made and you love his effort, his spirit, his makeup. If he continues to maintain that type of approach, then he has really good things in front of him.”

Bringing Drummond along slowly is akin to a rookie NFL quarterback. Aside from this past season’s blip of rookie quarterback excellence, they generally struggle to comprehend the speed and intricacy of the NFL game fresh out of college. It’s why so many people malign Tim Tebow; the NFL is just a different beast, one that can overwhelm even the best college quarterbacks. An NBA rookie isn’t given the same latitude for mistakes and time spent learning from the bench. He’s expected to perform almost instantly regardless of his position or role in college. But this isn’t really fair to the teenagers who come into a man’s game, and its certainly unfair to Drummond, who has handled the transition about as well as you could ask.

During Drummond’s lone season at the University of Connecticut, he appeared in 34 games for the Huskies, and started 30 of them. He averaged 10.0 points and 7.6 rebounds a game in just 28.4 minutes of action. He dropped 20 points just twice that year, and was a lottery pick because of his size and agility, not for his basketball knowledge or his stats against inferior competition… certainly not for the way he dominated Big East opponents on a weekly basis. Because he didn’t. He was a defensive force sometimes, sure, but he wasn’t imposing his will on every game like say, Tim Duncan did in his later years at Wake Forest.

The NBA’s regular season stretches 82 long regular season games, and it takes up around half a year. Already this season, Andre Drummond has played more than he ever has in his life. Analysts talk about rookies hitting the wall, and that’s precisely what happens: their bodies aren’t used to the grind of an NBA regular season, they get tired, their legs get tired, which in turn affects their shot and then their confidence. Andre Drummond isn’t a shooter. He rarely ventures outside the restricted area either on defense or offense. But he’s prone to the same spells of exhaustion that hit even the most trim rookies. It’s hard out there competing against the best players in the world on a semi-nightly basis while traveling almost every other day. There is no let up, and that can even wear veterans down (why do you think Popovich rested a bunch of his starters earlier this season?).

The flip side of the rookie wall are injury problems. This goes double for someone of Drummond’s size, and he did experience some back pains in the preseason. A lot of NBA writers have written about how Drummond still seems to be holding back, and we haven’t really seen what he can do – that he’s reserving his supernatural athleticism and playing like Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” with Detroit as the “Handicapper General.” This could be the case, but when you’re 6-10 and 270 pounds, that’s a lot of weight for a teenager’s knees to cushion, and so holding him back until he’s fully grown (a scary thought, sure, but he’s only 19 and plenty of people grow into their 20s) is probably better for his still-maturing body and mind. Big men in the NBA have a notoriously short shelf life because their bodies are so large and take a pounding on the block. Think about the repetitious pounding on the knees after running and jumping on the hardwood night after night. For someone like Drummond, who has never played this much in his life, that pounding could spell disaster.

So resting Drummond, and using him sparingly doesn’t call for the castigation of Lawrence Frank. Perhaps Joe Dumars instituted a baseline which he never wanted to see Drummond exceed? It’s commendable that Frank is sticking to his guns and keeping Drummond back a bit this season. He’s in a precarious position in that he’ll likely get canned if the team doesn’t show significant improvement, and part of that improvement would probably be furthered if Drummond saw more action. As Drummond himself said in the Haberstroh piece from above, “Lawrence knows what he’s doing. He knows when to put me into the game to get the best out of me. So however many minutes he plays me, he knows he’ll get 100 percent.”

The Pistons aren’t rushing Andre Drummond and so he’s not rushing himself. That’s to his benefit as well as the rest of the organization. Remember that the next time you go to insert the hashtag #FreeAndreDrummond in a tweet. First you have to learn how to play free, and that’s what Detroit’s doing with Drummond right now. So far it’s worked pretty well.

Should the Pistons be playing Drummond more often?

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