It didn’t take long. An hour or so after the Pistons drafted Andre Drummond in the 2012 NBA Draft, someone in the comments chimed in with the first of what I’m sure will be many ‘ … the next Ben Wallace!’ comparisons.
I get why we do it, I really do. It’s fun to reminisce about players of the past and hope that the new era of players will embody the traits that we loved in previous Pistons. Drummond is big, strong and, like Wallace, probably more skilled defensively than offensively. It’s nice to have a player like Wallace in Detroit’s recent past who we can look at and say, “Man … if Drummond can have the type of impact on this team that Wallace had on the 2000s teams, Detroit will be a championship contender again soon.”
The problem, though, is that it sets the bar impossibly high for a young player who needs time to become whatever it is that he is. Wallace has notoriously been one of the hardest working most self-motivated guys in recent NBA history. He’s intense, plays every game like it’s a championship game and made himself into an all-time great player because he had a superior work ethic, which allowed him to absolutely maximize the skills he did possess while making his weaknesses irrelevant.
Drummond is young. We don’t know how motivated he is yet. Although he possesses the athleticism and build to make him a force defensively, we have no idea if he will develop the instincts, the basketball IQ and the other necessary nuances that combine with physical gifts to make someone truly great defensively. Those vital intangible qualities, the things that Wallace and defensive players like him possess, are sometimes glossed over when a player’s skillset is described. When you look at how few truly elite, dominant defensive players there are, it’s obvious how rare those gifts are and that it’s not a given that they develop. If it were easy to develop defensive instincts, every athletic big man would be an elite defensive player. As people who have watched JaVale McGee up close will tell you, it’s easier said than done.
Drummond deserves the opportunity to develop at his own pace, to develop his own style, without having the standard that Wallace set imposed on him. Drummond could end up being a very good NBA player and still not ever get close to being as good or defensively dominant as Wallace was during his career.
My aim in writing that isn’t to call anyone out or point and laugh or act like I’m above getting way too excited about a promising young prospect. We’ve all been guilty of it. I, admittedly, bit hard on the ‘Rodney Stuckey is just like Chauncey Billups only way more athletic!’ meme when Stuckey was a rookie. The great Matt Watson, O.G. at Detroit Bad Boys, I believe was the president of both the Carlos Delfino and Amir Johnson fan clubs at different times (although to be fair, I don’t think he ever got into the ‘young player x = great player y’ business with either guy). Dan Feldman (LOL) wrote about the many, many striking similarities between Austin Daye and Kevin Durant last summer. On more than one telecast this season, George Blaha uttered some variation of, “Ya know, no Pistons rookie point guard has done things like that since Isiah,” when talking about Brandon Knight. I heard too many people to count make the Ben Gordon-Vinnie Johnson comparison (some people even went a little too far in that comparison).
Comparisons are common, mainly because they’re fun. Basketball is a great sport for comparisons because the sport itself is so artistic — lots of guys shoot fadeaway jumpers, but Dirk Nowitzki can have a fadeaway jumper that is so unique to him that when Kobe Bryant attempts a similar shot, he is not just shooting a fadeway, he’s shooting ‘Dirk’s fadeaway.’ I understand why comparisons are interesting to talk about. I understand why young players teeming with potential are really exciting, especially to current Detroit fans who have watched their share of grotesque basketball played by a handful of underachieving veterans with expensive contracts the last few seasons. But I don’t want Drummond to be the next Wallace or Knight to be the next Isiah (though I certainly wouldn’t complain if they are as productive as either guy). The thing that excites me most about the current Pistons roster is the fact that these guys, if they work hard, if they continue to improve, have a chance to give us a completely remade version of Detroit basketball that is unique to them. They aren’t going to be the Bad Boys, they aren’t going to be the ‘Going to Work’ era Pistons, and that’s just fine. They can create their own style and identity and, as long as that style is accompanied by good, winning basketball, still be highly entertaining to watch.