Last season when I was doing the Draft Dreams series for MLive, there were two players (not counting John Wall, who the Pistons weren’t going to get) I coveted more than any other: DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe.
Now Cousins, obviously, was the player I and many fans truly wanted to see end up on the Pistons. There were even rumors that he wanted to end up in Detroit. Cousins clearly had more potential than any big in the draft, even if he did have some maturing to do. But when it was clear the Pistons wouldn’t be able to pull off a trade to move up and get him, my hopes turned to Monroe. As it turns out, Monroe and Cousins are the two best big men to come out of last year’s draft, so as a result, their careers will always be compared.
Obviously, according to the ridiculous Rookie of the Year voting that had Monroe finish sixth, basketball watchers outside of Detroit have no idea how good Monroe actually is. He’s no worse than the third best player in this draft, and based on rookie seasons, he was much better than Cousins this year. But how about long-term potential? I assume most voters picked Cousins partially because he’s viewed as a player with unlimited potential whereas Monroe is viewed more as a complementary player who works hard but will never be a franchise cornerstone type player. Based on the expectations Monroe shattered for his rookie season, however, I’m not convinced that his potential isn’t as limitless as Cousins’.
Here’s what I wrote about Monroe before the draft:
"Georgetown’s early exit from the tourney (and simultaneous destruction of my bracket) deprived casual college basketball fans of getting an extended look this March, unlike other bigs who had decent tourney runs like Ekpe Udoh and DeMarcus Cousins.But Monroe can ball, and he might be the best offensive player of any big man this year."
That last statement is the greatest reason to have high hopes for Monroe heading into next season. He has an offensive skillset that, frankly, he didn’t unveil much of as a rookie. That’s not a knock on him, either. Despite seeing his role in the offense limited to basically being a guy who hit the offensive glass for put-backs or who hung around the basket for dump-offs from penetrating guards, Monroe averaged nearly 10 points per game for the season.
After the All-Star break, Monroe became the Pistons most (only?) reliable big man. He averaged 13.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He shot 58 percent while attempting nine shots per game. His minutes increased, his role expanded and his production increased. That’s the most promising sign any young player can give a team that so desperately needs a face of the franchise type of player to develop from within.
Compare that to Cousins’ second half. He averaged 14.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but his field goal percentage was a terrible 42 percent. His scoring and rebounding improved from his first half numbers, but his field goal percentage went down slightly.
Now, if his role in the offense expands, Monroe’s field goal percentage will go down some. Monroe shot so well because few of the shots he took were outside of the paint. A large number were tip-ins or point-blank shots that weren’t contested heavily. Cousins’ shooting percentage was poor because he was often put in a position where he had to try and create something out of nothing. Even though the Pistons struggled, they still featured more efficient offensive players than the Kings, so Monroe wasn’t put in unworkable positions and asked to force things the way Cousins was at times. I fully expect Cousins’ field goal percentage to rise and Monroe’s to fall off a bit next season.
But Monroe brings much more than shooting to the table. His passing at Georgetown was seen as his biggest attribute by scouts before the draft. As a freshman, his assist percentage was 18.7. As a sophomore, it was 22.3. As a rookie in Detroit, it was just 7.5 percent. Obviously that speaks to the fact that Monroe rarely touched the ball in a position where he was expected to create for himself or for teammates, but it also suggests that should the Pistons ask for more out of Monroe as a facilitator next season, he could show significant improvement in that area. Court vision relies so heavily on instincts, so it is typically a skill that transfers fairly well from college to the pros. If Monroe ever hits the 22 percent mark, he’ll be among the best big man passers in the league. In fact, 22 percent this season would’ve made him the top big man in the league in assist percentage.
Monroe’s willingness to work on his game is also an indicator he could improve significantly. Heading into last year’s draft, he was considered a solid but not great rebounder. He had a good season on the defensive boards for the Pistons, but his real impact came on the offensive glass. His offensive rebounding percentages in two years at Georgetown were 8.7 and 8.5 percent respectively. As a NBA rookie, it was 13.0 percent. That put him third in the league behind only Kevin Love and Zach Randolph.
Offensive rebounding is also an undervalued skill. Over the course of the season, Monroe’s presence on the offensive glass got the Pistons several extra possessions on offense. Next season, hopefully paired with a healthy Jonas Jerebko, another good offensive rebounder, the Pistons could be among the best in the league in that category.
The obvious difference between Monroe and Cousins is low-post ability. Cousins shot the ball poorly this season, but his skillset is extremely rare. At his best, he’s a taller, more athletic Zach Randolph. Cousins is a load to try and keep out of the paint, he’s nimble and he gets his shot off from a variety of angles. His footwork often gets sloppybecause he doesn’t always catch the ball with a wide base or seal off his man well on drop-step or spin moves, but that’s a characteristic of many young post players.
Even if Monroe improves at creating his shot, he’s never going to be the type of player you can dump the ball into, get out of his way and let him bully his way to the basket. He also doesn’t have Cousins’ ability to explode up over top of somebody and finish strong. Monroe relies much more on craftiness around the basket. Cousins’ ability to do those things are extremely valuable, as evidenced by the Memphis Grizzlies’ playoff run on the strength of Randolph’s post-up ability this season.
But do those things necessarily mean Cousins will be better? Monroe’s offensive rating of 120 was eighth in the league this season. I’m not making the case that he was the eighth best offensive player in the league by any stretch. But what if Monroe never adds to his repertoire much on offense? What if Rodney Stuckey becomes the Stuckey who played like an All-Star the final two weeks of the season or the Pistons add a playmaker who consistently attacks the basket and finds cutters? Is it inconceivable that Monroe could get 10-15 great looks at close-range shots every game and average 14-20 points per game solely on those easy looks? If Monroe continues to shoot a high percentage and he continues to rebound, his developing a post game doesn’t matter all that much if the Pistons put the right players around him. His current skillset alone suggests he could average double figures in points and rebounds while shooting a high percentage for his entire career. Even if he doesn’t add a single thing to his game, that would still put him in pretty rare company among NBA bigs.
This season, he was the only rookie in the top 20 in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. He ranked sixth among rookies in rebounding percentage. He was the top rookie in offensive rebounding percentage among players who started more than a game. Monroe wasn’t the top rookie in the NBA this season, but he was closer than anyone reasonably expected heading into the season. I remember a debate in the comments section before the season started as to whether or not Monroe would even make the All-Rookie team, and it seemed unrealistic to expect that he would based on his preseason performance. Most fans recognize Monroe as the season’s biggest bright spot and yet his performance is still underrated.
If his passing becomes a bigger part of the Pistons offense or his one-on-one post defense improves, Monroe is a potential All-Star. Most of the early season discussions about Monroe were centered on hoping that he eventually became a rotation caliber big man. The fact that he might be the best big man to come out of a draft deep in big men is a testament to how remarkable his rookie season was.