Andre Drummond is already a difference-maker in NBA debut against the Toronto Raptors

When I was writing about the Detroit Pistons’ open practice earlier this week, I worried I would tread too far on the positive side. After all, it’s pretty hard to look bad in an exhibition event meant to be fun and crowd-pleasing. On top of that, I’ve spent the last few months pretending I like baseball and football while secretly and impatiently waiting for the only sport I actually care about to return.

But in Wednesday’s 101-99 Pistons win over the Toronto Raptors, I learned another valuable lesson. In that open practice story, I wrote that Andre Drummond looked far away from being a regular contributor in the rotation. I stand by that — for all of his physical gifts, he made some mistakes and looked a step slow on defense. Wednesday though? Drummond looked like a starting NBA big man with 12 points (6-for-8 shooting), seven rebounds (four on the offensive glass) and two blocks in nearly 23 minutes off the bench.

Drummond was a crowd-pleaser with dunks on several lob passes. He didn’t force his offense — something he did a bit at the open practice — and simply moved without the ball and took the point-blank shots that were created for him. He was a monster to keep off the offensive glass (if he keeps that up, Drummond, Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko might give Detroit the league’s best offensive rebounding frontcourt). He changed shots defensively. His put-back with :35 seconds left was the decisive shot in the game.

Beyond the statistical impact, I was more impressed with Drummond’s overal demeanor. A knock on him coming out of UConn was that he often looked disinterested or lacked aggression. Tonight, he was engaged. His dunks were nice, but I was more impressed that he was both setting solid screens and really aggressively slipping them and cutting to the basket. I was more impressed that, even though it seemed like every single teammate on the floor and bench was pulling him aside to try and give him advice (seriously … the kid’s head must be spinning with all of those voices in his ear), he didn’t get flustered. I was more impressed that he was moving his feet defensively rather than leaving them at the slightest flinch of an opposing player.

This is one preseason game against a poor defensive team playing without arguably its best player in Kyle Lowry. Still, it’s worth being excited about. Every new season for teams good and bad brings hope. The Pistons of the last few seasons have had a habit of crushing that hope early on with lackadaisical performances in the preseason followed by awful regular season starts. Even if the Pistons aren’t as good as they looked at times tonight, the longer they can go simply preserving that intangible ‘hope,’ the more fun this season will be. It doesn’t take wins to do that, although they certainly help. It takes effort, improvement and an attempt to play fun basketball. The Pistons did all of those things tonight.

A different Brandon Knight

There was little to complain about with Brandon Knight‘s performance against the Raptors. He finished with 14 points (5-for-8 shooting), six assists and just two turnovers. If the Pistons get that type of production out of him every night, they’re hopes for a return to the playoffs will likely be realized.

As I stated above, the Raptors’ porous defense has to be mentioned here, but Knight also deserves major credit. Along with taking pretty good care of the basketball (his two turnovers were on cross-court passes where a man was open, but Knight was just a tad late delivering the passes, which led to deflections), Knight really looks like he’s improved at getting all the way to the basket and finishing. He’s not as explosive like pre-injury Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Rajon Rondo where he can just go up and dunk on people. Last season, when he’d attempt to get to the basket, he often struggled to split traps or got caught in traffic without being able to get his shot off. Tonight, there was no hesitation inside. He made quick moves, quick decisions as to when he should pass and played with his head up way more than I remember him playing last season.

He missed his only two 3-point attempts, but hopefully he’s able to maintain that outside shooting this season. The Pistons are certainly weak on the perimeter (0-for-13 for the game from three) and, depending on how the rotation shakes out, Knight might be their only 3-point threat. Knight, along with all the guards, didn’t defend Toronto’s backcourt particularly well. Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and John Lucas III were a combined 16-for-29 for 48 points). That’s not all Knight’s fault, of course, but he was one of three primary guards who took a run at those guys and had limited success. Knight is smart enough and skilled enough to be a bothersome defender. Hopefully, that part of his game evolves as the preseason goes on.

Don’t fret about that point guard position

Along with Knight, Will Bynum looked great, with eight points, seven assists and just two turnovers off the bench. Bynum is a bit of a lightning rod in the comments here, with a handful of vocal fans ready to issue his ticket out of town as soon as the Pistons brought in Jonny Flynn and Terrence Williams on training camp contracts. I don’t know if either of those guys will make the roster, but I do know that if they do, it won’t be at Bynum’s expense. He played under control, had great chemistry with Drummond setting up two of his alley-oops and he looked like a real backup point guard, not a spark plug in to drive the ball down the other team’s throat at any cost.

Bynum has a valuable skillset off the bench. The Pistons certainly need competent backup guard play. As long as he stays healthy, he solidified himself as a key reserve tonight.

Almost fret about that shooting guard position

In the second quarter, Amir Johnson dove for a loose ball and smashed awkwardly into Rodney Stuckey‘s knee. Stuckey went down and the replays showed Stuckey’s knee bending a way you don’t want it to bend. With Stuckey on the ground, just how thin Detroit’s shooting guard spot is was clear. Behind Stuckey, they have the aging and injury-prone Corey Maggette, an unproven second round pick in Kim English and, maybe in a pinch, Austin Daye. Those aren’t the most promising of options for a team with playoff operations.

Thankfully, Stuckey’s injury wasn’t as bad as it seemed. He walked off under his own power, got some treatment on the sidelines and returned in the second half.

Sidenote: When did DeRozan become a poor man’s Stuckey? He can’t shoot from the perimeter, but got to the free throw line 10 times and seemed to draw contact every time he touched the ball.

Jonas Jerebko, king of preseason technicals

In the Pistons’ preseason opener in 2009, then-rookie Jonas Jerebko solidified himself as a fan-favorite when he got ejected (and later suspended) for getting in a tussle with Jamaal Magloire. In tonight’s preseason opener, Jerebko picked up a technical after he got tangled up with Raptors rookie Quincy Acy.

Jerebko also played extremely well off the bench — 10 points, four rebounds, a block and a steal — but it’s the feistiness that I really liked. Jerebko was solid last season, but also seemed understandably limited after coming back from his Achilles injury. Tonight, he looked more like the Jerebko from his rookie season, running the floor on every play, hustling, getting in passing lanes and finding ways to be a nuisance. He could be Detroit’s most important player off the bench this season if he can do those things on a nightly basis.

Oh, and Greg Monroe was there

It’s strange that on a night when Greg Monroe goes for 17 and 10 that I don’t get around to mentioning him until the sixth sub-head in the recap, but I do think several of his teammates with lesser stats played much better tonight.

Monroe didn’t shoot bad (8-for-17), but did have problems getting his shot off against Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas (who is going to be really imposing once he gets the speed of the game down a bit and realizes that you can’t swat a ball off the rim in the NBA like you can in Europe). The good things Monroe did revolved around his persistence. He had his shot blocked four times, but he also got the ball back on two of those blocks and went back up and scored.

The bad things can be shored up if he just gets some sloppiness in check. He had the ball stolen from him behind a couple times (maybe that’s his teammates’ fault for not yelling loud enough about people sneaking behind him) and turned the ball over four times overall.

At any rate, it says a lot about Monroe’s ability that I can watch him get 17 and 10 and expect more.

I really, really liked Lawrence Frank’s offense

The Pistons looked great offensively much of this game, especially considering that this was their first preseason game. They shot 50 percent, had an incredible first quarter (putting up 37 points on 70 percent shooting) and turned it over a reasonable (for the preseason) 15 times.

Credit has to go to Lawrence Frank. Everyone on the team who played looks to be in shape. Everyone looks to be buying into the sets Frank wants to run (and considering how little players have bought into schemes of recent coaches around here, that’s significant). The offense was fun to watch. The team played faster (something fans and players alike have been begging for for years). Everyone moved the ball and made quick decisions and, in general, that ball movement got good shots for everyone and prevented the awful isolations that have been a staple of boring Pistons basketball for three years. I’m sure there was a bad shot or two tonight, but the fact that none stick out in my mind is also progress. Recapping games here the last few seasons, it seems like every game I watched there were at least two or three specific shots that came to mind as horrible.

My expectations for this team coming into the season were simple. I wanted to see the team be more competitive, I wanted to see them play better defensively and I wanted to see development in the team’s younger players. After one preseason game, I’m not ready to raise those expectations yet. But the fact that the thought that I may have the bar set too low crossed my mind is a major credit to Frank’s impact on this team.

Hello from Canada

There was originally no TV locally for this game, so Dan and I asked friend of the blog Pardeep Toor, my friend and also an MLive refugee like myself, if he’d mind doing a guest recap. He lives in Canada these days and grew up a Raptors fan, but converted to the Pistons while living in Michigan and he’s a huge NBA fan in general. Anyway, when FSD picked up the game, there was no need for the guest post, but I still thought it would be interesting to get some feedback on the Pistons as currently constructed from someone who doesn’t follow the team on a day-to-day basis like we all do. Anyway, here are some thoughts Pardeep sent on tonight’s game. — P.H.

Welcome to the fifth era of Toronto Raptors basketball!

Jonas Valanciunas debuted tonight versus the Pistons which by my count marks the fifth reboot in the organization’s 17 year existence. The eras in order: 1) Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire 2) Vince Carter (w/Tracy Mcgrady briefly) 3) Chris Bosh (gross) 4) Andrea Bargnani and now the chosen one — Jonas V.

The first three were nasty breakups that extended well beyond fandom and into personal commitment issues that I struggle with to this day. My failures in my personal and professional life are literally T-Mac’s fault. The fourth era is painfully dwindling at an excruciating cost but the end is inevitable and the regrets unforgiving. Which brings us to two possessions, two Valanciunas blocks on Greg Monroe in the post, two emphatic double fist pumps by yours truly and two toasts of hope that followed. Valanciunas will occupy hope for a Raptors fanbase that has held feverish beliefs before only to be mocked by the mainstream and ridiculed by the departed. Hopefully this time, the fifth time, things will be different.

Some random thoughts on the Pistons and this game:

-Like you, I have no idea why Aaron Gray starts for the Raptors at center. Zero idea.

– I’m not a fan of the Brandon Knight/Rodney Stuckey backcourt in the same way that I’m not a fan of the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis/Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis/Baron Davis pairings. In the brief time that I watched Stuckey/Knight they appeared to play in spite of each other as opposed to together. Their skills appear to offset rather than complement and neither of them consistently spaced out the floor beyond the three-point line to create more space for Monroe in the post. P.S. I love Monta Ellis.

– I’m glad Andre Drummond’s dunk party came at the expense of ex-Piston Amir Johnson who is either disinterested to the point of neglect or it was his first professional game of his career. Either way, there’s obviously reason to be excited for Drummond. He’s hope and excitement embodied in a monstrous frame equipped with freakish athleticism. He had a great game, a game he’s capable of having, but if history repeats itself, Drummond’s next game will be equally frustrating and miserable. Based on potential and value alone, it does seem absurd tonight that the Raptors selected Terrence Ross one pick before Drummond at the 2012 NBA Draft. It ruined my evening then and just did again tonight. See, history does repeat itself.

– You know who might be more physically impressive than Drummond? Corey Maggette. I fall for Maggette every year and this year is no different. He slashes and drives at impossible speeds considering his size and strength. Start that man at the four. Move him to the three after bringing in Drummond off the bench. Move him to the two after Jonas Jerebko enters the game. Put the ball in Maggette’s hands. Damnit. He got me again. Only Lamar Odom is a greater vice than Maggette.

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Tags: Andre Drummond Brandon Knight Corey Maggette Greg Monroe Jonas Jerebko Lawrence Frank Rodney Stuckey Will Bynum

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