Slava Kravstov is ready to play right away, and other observations, sights and video from Detroit Pistons open practice

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFVspK8HVQs&version=3&hl=en_US]

I made the trek out to Oakland University to watch the Detroit Pistons open practice on Saturday. It’s the third time I’ve gone to the open practice (you can see my irrational excitemetn from the other two times here and here), and I have to say, this was by far the most entertaining. Lawrence Frank barely talked, other than thanking the fans, then he just got out of the way and rolled the balls out to let the team get as much scrimmage time in in front of fans as possible. The previous ones I watched featured the team running through drills (sometimes with long explanations by the previous coaches) for a significant portion of the practice which, even to the biggest basketball junkies, is a little on the boring side.

The players also made it entertaining. As you’ll read below, it was physical. They went at each other, and if that’s the intensity level they play with in a public practice, I can only imagine what is going on behind the scenes. Below are some observations I jotted down, some photos and some video clips I was able to snap in between trying to keep my 2-year-old son from stealing Skittles from the family sitting next to us. If anyone else was there, feel free to leave your own observations in the comments. Keep in mind, I tend to get way to excited about this kind of thing (I once thought Walter Herrmann would win Sixth Man of the Year based on an open practice), so I reserve the right to backtrack from these to more measured opinions in the future).

Assistant coach Brian Hill talks with some of the players between quarters. The Pistons rotated players and combinations throughout the scrimmage and the assistant coaches took turns running huddles on the sidelines.

Slava Kravstov is for real

Virtually every team is on the lookout for young, tough, athletic, defensive-minded big men, so it’s hard to believe Joe Dumars simply plucked one out of essentially nowhere when most teams have similar abilities to scout international players these days. That appears to be exactly what has happened though. When I wrote my preliminary projections for how the Pistons rotation will shake out on Friday, I expressed a hope that one of the young bigs, Slava Kravstov or Andre Drummond, would get the starting center spot, even if it only meant that player would play minimally at the start of each half. After watching Kravstov today, I’m convinced he will be Detroit’s starting center for one reason — defense.

When he guarded Greg Monroe, he successfully pushed Monroe way out of the paint. He moved his feet quickly and stayed in front of Monroe on drives. He was physical, and that will likely result in him picking up a lot of fouls as a rookie, but that’s OK — it’s doubtful the Pistons will be counting on him to play big minutes.

His shot-blocking looked as good as advertised. He didn’t bite on pump fakes, kept his feet and blocked shots facing up. He also came from the weak side and caught shots by penetrating guards.

This is probably more a statement on the overall lack of defense the Pistons frontcourt played last season, but Kravstov in the limited time I watched him today already looked like the most natural defensive player on the Pistons roster. His skillset is so rare on this team, that it’s going to get him on the court.

Offensively, as you’ll see in the highlights along with a couple of his blocks, he finishes well around the basket. The reports of him having no offensive game outside of the immediate area around the basket seem accurate (although he looked like he sets good, physical screens), but any baskets he gives the Pistons are a bonus. If he can defend, he’s going to play right away and add a dimension to the Pistons they sorely need.

Andre Drummond needs work

We all knew that already, of course, but Drummond’s rawness was on full display. He’s incredibly gifted athletically, moves up and down the court well and, when he’s in traffic, has the ability to go up and dunk over anyone at any time. He had a great one-handed dunk over about three players after grabbing a pass in traffic.

But the scouting reports on him coming out of college — that he lacks any real schooling in fundamentals and mainly relies on his immense physical gifts — seemed about right. He rushed offensively a few times when he got touches in the post and took low percentage shots. He looks to dunk all the time, which is exciting for fans, but not always the most prudent decision and could lead to drawing some offensive foul calls. Love the aggression though.

He was really uncomfortable looking at the free throw line. On one of his stranger attempts, he started his shot, caught himself and made a motion like he was going to wipe his forehead, then continued with his motion. I can’t really describe accurately how it looked, other than just reiterating that he didn’t seem super comfortable when he wasn’t right under the basket. That’s not a huge issue for the Pistons, considering they don’t need much offense out of him.

Defensively, the difference between him and Kravstov is discipline and footwork. While Kravstov didn’t leave his feet much on fakes, Drummond bit on a couple. Kravstov also seemed to be a bit better at anticipating where offensive players were trying to get with the ball and beating them there.

Overall, he’s a freakish athlete, ran the floor well, he’s an elite finisher and there was absolutely nothing about his performance that was disappointing. He’s a project, though, so the Pistons are probably right to bring him along slowly, and if Kravstov is as legit as he looks, they’ll have that luxury.

Jonas Jerebko looked a step quicker than just about everyone on the court Saturday.

Jonas Jerebko’s jumper looks better

On Friday, Dan Feldman wrote this about Jonas Jerebko:

Jonas Jerebko is not a bad perimeter shooter, but he’s not a good one, and it’s frustrating how close he is to being good.

Now, Oakland’s three-point line is the college line, not the NBA one, so it was hard to tell if Jerebko was shooting actual threes or the long twos Dan complained about in his post. I also didn’t see him attempt a corner three, a place Feldman noted Jerebko shoots 38 percent from. But what I did see, and a couple of the highlights in the video should show, is that Jerebko’s release is quicker and there was no hesitation when the ball was swung to him. Those have been problems in the past — he’s passed those shots up or he didn’t get them off quick enough before the opportunity closed.

Beyond that, Jerebko also looked much more comfortable in the open court and handling the ball. He looked — dare I say it — like a small forward. He initiated the fast break, he found teammates with great passes, he moved without the ball and he hit perimeter jumpers.

Is Brandon Knight figuring out the point guard thing?

Brandon Knight may never be a traditional pass-first point guard, but Saturday, he looked like a more efficient guard. His passing was crisp, his decision-making as to when to look for his offense and when to simply run the offense was better and there wasn’t the occasional sloppiness with the ball that plagued him last season. He particularly looked more comfortable running pick and roll, which is a great sign for the Pistons.

Is Tayshaun Prince back to the old Tayshaun Prince?

The Pistons’ young players need Tayshaun Prince to be not quite so ball-dominant in the offense to see if they can develop into the centerpiece type of players the front office hopes they can become. On Saturday, Prince rarely touched the ball when initiating the offense. He made quick decisions when he caught in on the wings rather than holding the ball. He made good, quick entry passes into the post and he moved without the ball.

If the team develops to the point that the Isolayshaun offense becomes a thing of the past this season, that will be a huge win for the Pistons, the fans who watch and for Prince himself, who is much better as a third or fourth option than when he’s forced into being a primary option.

Greg Monroe’s evolution

The biggest question with Greg Monroe is simply whether or not it was even possible for him to make as big a leap forward this offseason as he did between his rookie and sophomore seasons. There were good signs on Saturday that he can.

He might never be a great defender. He can be an improved one by making use of his quick hands to get more steals. On Saturday, he had at least four steals and deflections in the lane, either getting a hand in passing lanes or stripping the ball from the big men he was guarding. He made a better effort to hold his position in the post. If Kravstov or Drummond (or, hopefully, both) emerges this season as a viable defensive stopper up front, allowing Monroe to always guard the worst of the opposing team’s two frontcourt positions, he could once again make a huge leap.

He has more room to grow on defense than he does on offense at this point, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see new things. Several times, Monroe took steals or rebounds and immediately looked to start the break himself. He’s a solid ball-handler and great passer for a big man. If this allows the Pistons to get into their offense quicker, I’m all for him doing this more often.

He also showed a bit more range on his jumper and more comfort taking it. Any time he was given a crack of space in the 15ish feet range, he shot with no hesitation, and I didn’t see him miss from that spot. He struggled a bit around the basket against Kravstov and Drummond, but off the dribble or shooting jumpers, they really couldn’t guard him.

His biggest improvement on offense will simply be him being more assertive. He’s clearly the Pistons best player, and if he’s not getting enough touches, he needs to demand them.

Don’t close the book on Charlie Villanueva yet

Not only did the reports that Charlie Villanueva is in great shape look to be true, he was more active than I’ve ever seen him as a Piston. He made a passable effort on defense — coming up with at least two steals — and he stayed around the basket on offense. In the video, you’ll see an incredible move he made on Jason Maxiell. He looked like a different player. Of course, he’s tantalized with flashes like that before, so until he does it for a season, there’s no point in getting hopes up, but he definitely looks like he’s in line for a rotation spot if he’s been playing that well in practice.

Singler struggled

A couple of things stood out to me about Kyle Singler. First and foremost, he’s much slimmer than he was at Duke. He legitimately looks more like a small forward than a power forward based on his build now.

Secondly, he struggled with his shot — a couple were way off. He’s the type of player whose contributions will probably not show up statistically, but if he’s going to earn minutes as a rookie, he’ll have to hit his jumper more consistently. With Jerebko, Maggette and Austin Daye all competing for minutes at Singler’s position, there’s little margin for error in camp.

Other notes

  • Joe Dumars was there, sitting courtside. As I wrote above, I’ve been to two of these, and don’t remember seeing Dumars, let alone courtside. I know he prefers to be behind the scenes, but it is nice to see him out observing things like this up close every once in a while, even if for sybolic reasons.
  • Corey Maggette and Rodney Stuckey are going to cause a lot of bruised sternums this season and probably already have in practice. It’s amazing how much contact they take, even in a scrimmage.
  • Kim English looked much more comfortable as a slasher and open court player. It’s not that his shot looked bad, it’s just that he was maybe the most aggressive player on the floor (other than Kravstov) and he excelled in open court situations where he could fill lanes or attack the basket.
  • Jason Maxiell appears to be in even better shape than last season, which makes sense since he’s entering another contract year. He told the crowd during an interview that he did a lot of work on the track this season.
  • Khris Middleton didn’t stand out either way. He hit one shot that I remember — a corner three — but it didn’t count because he stepped out of bounds.
  • Will Bynum looked healthy. I don’t know how much Bynum will play, but if he’s healthy, he’s always an instant offense and change of pace threat off the bench. There was nothing that suggested he isn’t the best bet to open the season as the backup point guard despite two high profile camp invites who play that position. Speaking of …
  • Pistons P.A. announcer Mason would love for Jonny Flynn to make the team — he said ‘FLYNN AGIN’ several times despite Flynn not really doing much when he was on the court. Flynn didn’t look bad, but he didn’t stand out as doing anything remarkable either.
  • Terrence Williams, on the other hand, is intriguing. He looked comfortable as a point guard and his height allows him to make passes others can’t. He’d give the Pistons a dimension they don’t really have off the bench in their backcourt with his size. Backup guards Bynum and English are on the smallish side. Still don’t think he makes the team, but I can see why Frank likes his skillset.
  • Here is some coverage of the open practice from others: Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News; Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press; David Mayo of MLive; Ryan Hegedus of Life on Dumars.
  • Enjoy the highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-_ElWuoNTQ&version=3&hl=en_US]

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Tags: Andre Drummond Austin Daye Brandon Knight Charlie Villanueva Corey Maggette Greg Monroe Jason Maxiell Jonas Jerebko Khris Middleton Kim English Kyle Singler Lawrence Frank Rodney Stuckey Tayshaun Prince Vyacheslav Kravtsov Will Bynum

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