Wixom, Mich. — At Brandon Knight’s basketball camp on July 28, it didn’t take long to witness the maturity that has those who see him up close on a daily basis insistent that he’s going to maximize his potential.
Knight, who won’t turn 21 until December, was busy interacting with and posing for pictures with kids who in some cases were not a whole lot younger than him. Knight partnered with Pro Camps to do the camp in Michigan, and his first response to a question about why he wanted to be a part of the camp hinted at the fact that Knight is mature beyond his years, as numerous profiles of him have indicated.
“I did one at home (in Florida) and wanted to do one in Detroit as well,” Knight said. “I just want to give back to the community and give kids an opportunity that I had when I was younger to go to camp and just learn some new things. Basketball is something you can do on your own, do drills on your own, so it gives them a chance to learn some drills that they can take with them.”
He also gave a response about the nature of the camp itself sure to please basketball purists, who often complain that the teaching of fundamentals at the youth level is a lost art.
“The camps I went to (as a kid) were mostly just to play,” Knight said. “They weren’t really instructional. These type of camps (Pro Camps) are more to teach the fundamentals and drills they can go do on their own and try and get better.”
Despite the relevant statistical criticisms of Knight that are out there (namely, that he turns it over too much and doesn’t get enough assists for a starting point guard), I’m a huge believer that a player with Knight’s match of talent and work ethic is a good long-term investment for the Pistons.
Knight answered several questions on a variety of topics. Rather than trying to mash his quotes all into one story, below is a breakdown of some of the things he discussed. As you’ll see, Knight has a pesky habit of always saying the right thing, and that makes it really hard not to believe in him.
The Brandon Knight-Rodney Stuckey backcourt
The Pistons are banking on Knight improving significantly enough to be a key part of a contending team at some point in the future. They are invested in Stuckey after re-signing him to a lucrative deal last offseason. Both players have their detractors among Pistons fans, but for better or worse, this is the team’s starting backcourt for the foreseeable future. And actually, I’m pretty confident it can work.
Knight shot 37 percent from 3-point range as a rookie. He shot around that same percentage in his one college season. For the criticisms of his game as a rookie, pretty much everyone, critic or not, agrees that the most significant skill he brought to the table last season was his spot-up shooting. Next to a guard like Stuckey, who is most effective when he’s bulldozing his way into the lane and drawing contact, it’s vital that the Pistons have spot-up shooters. So if you’re committed to Stuckey as one of your starting guards, Knight does possess the main skill I would think you would look for in the other starter. In fact, shooting ability is the reason the Pistons originally viewed Ben Gordon as the ideal compliment for Stuckey, back when Stuckey was considered the team’s point guard of the future. Unlike Gordon, though, Knight is more versatile and bigger, so he shouldn’t be the long-term defensive liability Gordon proved to be.
During the season, Stuckey mentioned his plans to get to know Knight better this summer and work with him a lot. They also developed a good relationship during the season as they played together. Knight says that bond has strengthened this summer.
“This summer has been chemistry building really,” Knight said. “Just spending a lot of time around each other on and off the court, working out with one another and building bonds. As you get close to someone, you can talk to them even more on the court, relate to them more on the court. When you work an entire summer with a guy in the trenches, when it gets time for games to start, that continues.”
Joe Dumars has talked several times over the years about his belief that traditional views of basketball positions are out-dated. There is good evidence to support that — the point guard position, in particular, has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. In Knight and Stuckey, the Pistons might not have an individual starting point guard. But within their two skillsets, they probably come out of it with close to a full point guard and a full shooting guard. That versatility — having two players who can score or alternate running the offense — could prove to be an advantage for how the Pistons attack teams should they continue to work on complementing each other’s skills.
“It gives a big advantage,” Knight said. “It makes our rotation more versatile. He can play the one or the two, I can do the same thing. It adds versatility to the guard position.”
Getting a real offseason
Heading into last season, the plan for the Pistons was to rely on veteran guards while implementing the rookie Knight slowly off the bench. That plan was scrapped pretty early as injuries forced Knight into the starting lineup. The Pistons kept him as their starter the entire season and perhaps no rookie in the league was thrown to the wolves, ready or not, more than Knight. There were times he looked good. There were games he looked lost. But the Pistons remained committed to playing him regardless of his performance fluctuations because the one thing he consistently displayed was a tireless work ethic.
Amid all of the wildly different opinions on Knight last season, something I think often got lost that he deserved more credit for was simply his durability. Many rookies broke down, battled injuries and missed games during a brutal, sprint of a lockout-shortened NBA season. Knight had a larger workload than any rookie, played through pain and didn’t miss a game.
On top of that, the Pistons didn’t have a coaching staff or system in place when he was drafted and he didn’t have an offseason program to get ready. Now, he gets to build on that rapid fire learning experience as a rookie with a full offseason and a coaching staff whose expectations he knows and a system he has a year of experience in.
“It gives me a lot of not just confidence, but being comfortable,” Knight said. “With the lockout, not being able to do a (full) training camp, just learning everything on the fly, it kind of puts you in some discomfort. It added some adversity. I think our team as a whole was at a disadvantage. We had a new system, new players, new coaches and we had to get used to them. Now that we know what to expect, know our system better and know what it takes for our team to win games, I think we’ll be more prepared at the start of this season.”
Although Knight is excited for the season to start, he’s also still working to maximize what is left of the summer before training camp.
“Once I heard that it (the schedule) came out, I definitely got excited about starting the season,” he said. “We still have a little bit of offseason left. I enjoy the offseason. That’s when you get better. We have a lot of guys working hard, we added a lot of new pieces and I’m just confident in what we’re going to be able to do this year. We have a lot of guys who are hungry, and I know myself and the other guys are tired of having lackluster performances. We’re just ready to have a good season.”
Rebuilding a locker room
At their peak in the 2000s, the Pistons were known for having one of the most harmonious, drama-free locker rooms in the NBA, perhaps in all of major pro sports. It’s also one of the many things that has withered away with the team’s decline.
Veteran players grew mistrustful of management after the Chauncey Billups trade. They publicly belittled the coach. They mutinied. There were rumors of a locker room divide between veteran players and young players. In the past year, the front office has worked to heal those wounds, and Knight’s, Greg Monroe‘s and Jonas Jerebko‘s presences as hard-working, humble young players have played a big part in improved chemistry behind the scenes and earning the respect of veteran teammates.
Knight noted that the infusion of youth on the roster should help make practices even more competitive, specifically that young players need to prove and establish themselves as NBA players and are possibly fighting for roster spots in some cases while veterans are already established.
“Last year I had those type of (younger) guys around me, it’s just I didn’t know Greg as well, didn’t know Vernon Macklin as well,” Knight said. “I didn’t know a lot of the older players. Just overall, having a year to know and relate to guys better and having more guys around your age will make practices a little more competitive, a little more athletic, with guys not really having an excuse to not get after it. Younger guys have more of a sense of, ‘I have to get in practice to prove myself.’ Older guys work hard, but they don’t need to make a name for themselves in practice. Having younger guys definitely will help us get better, but for me, I’m gonna be comfortable with all the guys there.”
The Pistons of the 2000s peak were famous for having an edge, for bonding over a collective experience that other teams gave up on them or deemed them expendable. They rallied around that shared NBA experience and used it as motivation. This new Pistons core, though much younger, could regardless share that attitude.
Monroe fell further than expected in the 2010 draft. Knight fell further than expected in 2011. Andre Drummond fell further than expected in 2012. Hopefully, it creates a similar rallying point.
“It motivates you,” Knight said. “As soon as you come out of college, it’s something that you use and you always look back on for motivation. For me and Greg and even Andre, our biggest thing is we want to change the culture here in Detroit. That’s our main thing. Every time me and Greg come in the locker room, we don’t want to lose. We hate losing. We want to get Detroit back to where it was. It will take a lot of hard work. They had a lot of great teams, a lot of great players in the past, but we’re working really hard just to get back and achieve even more than that.”
Rationality vs. Hope
Last season, I wrote a post called, ‘Don’t ruin Brandon Knight by looking too closely at his stats right now.’ I’m doubling down on that. I’m not going to predict that Knight is destined for stardom. In fact, if he doesn’t become anything more than a reliable rotation player in his career, he’s still worth having around. It’s good to have guys on your roster who push themselves. It’s good to have guys who are mature. It’s good to have guys who desperately want to win. It’s good to have guys who want to be in Detroit, who want to be involved in the community. It’s good to have guys who can make 3-pointers. Knight has talent and upside, and his work ethic, if he’s persistent with it, makes it a safe bet that he’ll overcome some of the mistakes he makes on the court as a young player. Knight’s qualities make him easy to root for. I’m not particularly worried about trying to predict how good he’ll be in the future. I like him and like that he’s on the team that I follow, and that’s sufficient for me at this stage in his development. There have been a handful of guys on the Pistons in the last few seasons who haven’t been particularly fun to follow or root for, so don’t discount how nice it is having a guy like Knight around, working as hard as he possibly can to get better.
Oh, and just to drive home the point that the guy knows how to give a quote that will endear him to fans, coaches and team officials alike, with the Olympics going, Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press asked Knight if he ever dreamed of getting to that level someday where he’d be considered for inclusion on the U.S. team. Knight’s response:
“I’m focused on the Pistons being an elite team. That’s my goal as an individual player and one of the leaders of this team.”