After his best performance as a pro Friday, Brandon Knight didn’t get much of a chance to build on that performance. Knight took an inadvertent elbow to the face from former Piston DaJuan Summers early in Saturday’s win over New Orleans and broke his nose.
Hopefully, the injury doesn’t cause him to miss a lot of time — he’ll probably join a long line of famous masked Pistons like Bill Laimbeer, Antonio McDyess, Rip Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva. In the meantime, though, Knight’s absence allowed another rookie to show what he can do as a team’s primary lead guard.
Walker Russell‘s circumstances are quite different from Knight’s. Knight is a prized, highly hyped lottery pick who will be given ample opportunities to turn himself into a good NBA player. Russell has no such guarantees. He’s playing without a guaranteed contract. If not for a long list of injuries, the Pistons would’ve never signed him even to that non-guaranteed deal. He’ll be 30-years-old later this year. And when the Pistons regulars do return, there’s no guarantee, despite his solid play, that he’ll even hang around on the roster.
Saturday’s audition was big for Russell, and he made the most of it. He showed for an extended stretch what he has shown in the brief flashes of playing time the Pistons have given him: he can run a NBA offense, he always looks to make plays for others, he competes hard on defense and he takes care of the basketball. He scored nine points with four assists, two turnovers and two steals. If the Pistons can’t keep him, he might not be a difference maker, but he will give competent minutes off of most benches in a league that overall doesn’t have an abundance of unselfish, smart point guards.
But Russell’s performance didn’t just do him some favors if he finds himself in need of a new team soon. Subbing the minutes of a shoot-first player in Knight (he’s been getting incrementally better as a passer, but his first inclination his entire life has been to score the ball) for a pass-first (and maybe pass-second) player in Russell allowed the Pistons other shot-loving rotation players the chance to play more freely. Ignoring last night’s performance by Knight for a minute, when he’s been in the lineup, the Pistons offense hasn’t looked good. That’s not all Knight’s fault, but because he’s a shoot-first guy and because Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince are shoot-first guys, they all kind of struggle for power at times. All three guys possess some ability to create for others and all three possess some ability to create shots for themselves. What is usually missing is an understanding of who is supposed to do what. Sometimes all three are too assertive, sometimes none of them are. What has resulted has been a mess of an offense with no true facilitator and three guys who all seem to want that job, but none of the three showing he can do it full-time. Oh, and complicating things, the one guy who is a natural facilitator, who should have the offense running through him, Greg Monroe, plays center, so he relies on others to get him the ball. As we’ve seen all season, there are many games Monroe doesn’t touch it enough as a result.
Subbing Russell for Knight makes that problem less complex. When Russell’s in the game, he brings the ball up, he starts the offense and Prince and Stuckey didn’t have to worry about figuring out when they were supposed to take turns as playmakers and when they were supposed to simply take the shots that came to them.
Monroe also was heavily involved. He finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds, and he also got 17 shots, the most he’s had in the last four games.
I was looking forward to seeing how Knight followed up that first really good performance of his career. It’s disappointing he didn’t get a chance at it tonight, but the game wasn’t a total waste, either. Hopefully, he’s learning how to have command of an offense and run it efficiently when he gets to watch Russell out there.
Big plays by veterans
Stuckey and Prince didn’t have good games overall, but both helped put the game away late with key plays and big shots.
Prince made a nice pass to Jason Maxiell for a dunk to the the Pistons up five with 2:31 left. Stuckey hit a contested 18-footer off the dribble to put the Pistons up seven with less than two minutes left. Maxiell snuck in for an offensive rebound/dunk to put the Pistons up five with less than a minute to go.
Stuckey had a poor shooting night (5-for-13), but he got more aggressive in the second half and started getting to the free throw line by driving inside more. He was passive in the first half, didn’t get a couple of calls, and settled for jumpers after that. It was good to see him come out more aggressive, particularly late in the third quarter and in the fourth.
Prince also shot poorly, and he and a few others got torched by Trevor Ariza for 17 first half points. Prince did a little better job on him in the second half.
Maxiell had another fantastic game. Last night, I mentioned Maxiell’s previous struggles as a starter. He had a good game as a starter against Milwaukee, but due to injuries, the Bucks were starting their typical backup frontcourt guys. Tonight, Maxiell finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and a block against a big frontline of Emeka Okafor and Jason Smith. Those guys certainly aren’t All-Stars, but Maxiell has often had problems getting shots off inside against taller players. He was active and delivered another encouraging performance in what has been a nice bounce-back season for him so far.
Jerebko impresses again
After a rough stretch of games where Jonas Jerebko wasn’t his energetic self, his activity has come back nicely over the last three games. He scored 11 points and had five rebounds against the Hornets.
More importantly, though, he’s stayed out of foul trouble the last three games. When Jerebko picks up quick fouls, he becomes much less aggressive. A non-aggressive Jerebko is a non-effective Jerebko. He’s a huge asset with his constant motion and activity when he can stay on the court.