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Andre Drummond, Pistons

Editorials

Andre Drummond is reaching a new peak as the Pistons enter the Playoffs

For years, Andre Drummond was the sole engine of the Detroit Pistons. Around him was mismanagement; the free agent missteps (Josh Smith is still collecting checks!), the injuries to key players (most importantly: Reggie Jackson), and the whiffed lottery picks (Stanley Johnson, KCP, and Henry Ellenson), all of which Pistons fans grew all too wary of.

The Pistons center — who was first in usage rate on the team for three consecutive seasons (from 2015 to 2018) — was forced to lead a team, despite being unfit.

After having a breakout season in 2015, Drummond inked a 5-year $130 million contract. The next season, though, his points (13.6) and rebounds (13.8) dipped dramatically. As a result, trade rumors swirled throughout the season, centered around Drummond and Reggie Jackson  — both of whom were once primed as the saviors of Detroit basketball.

Instead of trading Drummond, however, President-Coach Stan Van Gundy flipped Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and multiple first-rounders for Blake Griffin. Consider it a last-ditch effort to quench the playoff thirst of an impatient fanbase, while refusing to quit on a young building block.

After hitting rock bottom of his NBA career, Drummond vowed to work harder. Awaking at 7:30 a.m. in the Summer, Drummond ran laps around a nearby track, according to James Edwards of TheAthletic. He didn’t stop there. The remainder of each day consisted of bike rides, rope jumps, and a run on the Miami beach. The strict regimen — plus a sinus surgery which aided breathing — led to him shedding 25 pounds (James Edwards of TheAthletic).

Blows to the head don’t stop Drummond, either. Ironically, they only seem to lift him to greater heights. Since recovering from a concussion suffered against the Miami Heat on January 18, in 35 games, Drummond has averaged 18.5 points on 60.9% true shooting and 16.5 rebounds, both of which would be career-highs stretched over the course of a full season. Drummond capped off said timeline — during which Detroit went 20-15 — with a record-tying 15 points-15 rebounds game against the New York Knicks. His net rating of +3.4 (+9.7 since the concussion) leads a team that is headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Nurturing his scoring rise (from 16.5 points per game to 18.5) is a newfound nose for efficiency, with his points per touch increasing about 4% since suffering the concussion. His post-up scoring has increased (from 0.56 to 0.76 points), a byproduct of the Pistons chopping his touches in that area in half (from 4.9 to 2.6).

Closer to the rim is where Drummond inflicts the most damage, and, statistically speaking, he’s seemed to realize that. 8% more of his bunnies (less than five feet) are falling. Not to mention, off-balanced floaters have been wiped from his dashboard — his shots within 5-9 feet have decreased 30%, according to NBA.com. Whereas Drummond shied away from contact before, he now weaponizes his body like a battering ram, power-dribbling to the cup.

Fewer dribbles, however, exemplify how Drummond is keeping the game simple. Since January 25, he’s taking 0 dribbles before shooting more often (7.6 FGA to 8.3 FGA), of which, more importantly, he’s finishing at a higher clip (57.7% to 64.4%). Posting-up deeper into the lane, the Detroit big twirls around and deploys a mean baby-right hook.

Drummond hasn’t done this by himself, though. Blake Griffin has played a major role in Drummond’s next step towards stardom, too, according to James Edwards of The Athletic.

Against the Atlanta Hawks on February 22, Drummond elected for a fadeaway right-hook over Dewayne Dedmon, despite the Hawks center having two fouls. A play originally drawn for Griffin, the former Clipper forward signaled for an audible to Drummond. After the flimsy hook, Griffin shouted at Drummond, ”You’re stronger than him, you need to go through him!” (James Edwards of The Athletic). So, the next possession, Drummond posted-up Dedmon again. This time, one power dribble was enough to vault for the dunk. After the play, Griffin pounded his teammate on the chest.

“With that play in Atlanta, to touch on that … I’ve never had someone do that for me before,” Drummond told James Edwards of The Athletic after the Pistons beat the Hawks during which Drummond recorded 26 points and 21 rebounds. “For him to do that just shows the confidence he has in me to score the ball on somebody and make the right play. With guys like that, guys that give me confidence, we give each other confidence throughout the game, too.”

In a more tangible sense, the duo of Drummond and Griffin have the highest net-rating (+5.1) on Detroit for two-man lineups with 1000 or more minutes together (1974 total minutes). Zooming out to the rest of the league, that net rating is sixth for power forwards and centers under the same parameters, illustrating the oddity of the behemoth Pistons duo.

With Blake Griffin off-the-court, Drummond’s net rating fluctuates 8.5 points, the greatest difference on the team. With the power forward on the bench, Drummond embraces a larger scoring role (16% more points per minute), though the gravity in which Griffin provides with a newfound deep-stroke (36.2% on 7.0 attempts) and renowned finishing ability is evidently irreplaceable.

Here, Griffin stretches the help-side defender, Al Horford, out to the corner three-point mark. Thus, Drummond is given space to cut along the baseline.

Griffin leverages his gravity to pinpoint Drummond in high-low situations, as well. The first play of the sequence below starts with Griffin setting a down-screen for Drummond. The Pistons center proceeds to set a ball-screen for Ish Smith, at which point Griffin is already setting a wedge screen for Drummond. Dieng “hedges” the ball-screen, putting Saric in a pick-your-poison situation; A) defend Griffin at the three-point line or; B) defend Drummond down-low. He chose the latter, which, in turn, allowed Griffin and Drummond to complete an alley-oop.

Although a lion’s share of Griffin’s passes are handoffs to guards — mostly for Reggie Bullock triples — Drummond is the most likely to finish off the play with a bucket (his 1.1 assists to Drummond lead the team). Attracting Drummond’s defender, Griffin dishes to Drummond, who “flashes” in a subtle way — whether along the baseline, on the block, or in the paint.

Even when Griffin clanks shots, Drummond snaps on his garbage truck driver hat, cleaning up messes around the rim. He is first in offensive rebounds by a wide margin (5.4) and will grab them even with arms draped over his jersey (first in contested rebounds with 4.1).

Statistically, Drummond has proven to be elite this season. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves version of Kevin Love (2010-11) has matched Drummond’s averages of 17 points on 55% true shooting and 15 rebounds in the last three decades.

In terms of advanced statistics, only 11 centers possess a higher RPM (2.65) than Drummond this season (Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jusuf Nurkic, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Brook Lopez, Kevon Looney, Marc Gasol, and DeMarcus Cousins).

Until recently, Drummond has been asked to create more so than the aforementioned elite group of centers. Before January 25, Drummond would be tied for first in points unassisted percentage (46.6) with Nikola Jokic, stretched over the entire season.

Aside from the tier-one centers — Jokic, Vucevic, Embiid, KAT — the next tier of centers in the group are paired next to a dynamic guard. For years, Drummond didn’t have that luxury, so he wasn’t used as a roller in ball-screen situations. Even this season, Drummond rates eighth in pick-and-roll possessions of the group, averaging only 2.6 per game.

With Reggie Jackson finally healthy (and finding a groove), Drummond has been asked to create less, naturally providing him more opportunities as a roller. His points assisted has dropped to 38.6%, third behind Embiid and Jokic. The Jackson-Drummond duo has combined for the third-best net rating (+3.7) for those who have appeared in 1000 or more minutes on the Pistons. A new avenue of scoring has been opened for a Detroit offense driven by Blake Griffin’s isolations earlier in the season.

The defensive side may well be where Drummond has the strongest case for joining elite company, however. Eighth in block rate for those who appeared in over 20 minutes, Drummond employs snappier footwork to foil opponents’ pick-and-rolls — be it ball-handlers or rollers. His laser focus is apparent when he stomps on shots from help position, too.

Even when his fingertips do miss the orange sphere, his mammoth arms distract shooters, being ninth in the league in contested shots. The wherewithal to snatch boards is nothing short of extraordinary — first in the league in contested defensive rebounds (3.4).

On the first play of the sequence above, Drummond transports his large body to different dimensions like Thanos. He “tags” Bradley Beal as the Wizards guard snakes the ball-screen. Before Drummond switches back to his assignment (Bobby Portis) he eyes Trevor Ariza out of his periphery, so he stays on “help-side.” Noticing Jackson and Griffin running Portis off-the-line, Drummond waits. Finally, he takes a straight-up approach to defend Portis’ floater, and grabs the rebound.

In the first round of the playoffs, the eighth-seeded Pistons match-up against the NBA’s winningest team Milwaukee Bucks. To be frank, Detroit will need everything to work in their favor to win the series.

First off, Detroit’s defense will be pushed to the brink. Coach (of the year) Mike Budenholzer famously deploys four shooters around Giannis, a strategy which will force Drummond to defend multiple positions. On the offensive end, Detroit may counter Milwaukee’s hyperdrive speed with a snail’s pace — posting-up Drummond against Brook Lopez, and hoping that Lopez misses more than a few rebounds.

Looking ahead, Detroit won’t have much cap space to indulge in this coming Summer’s pool of free agents, with Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond accounting for $79.4 million. Next Summer, however, they shed upwards of $40 million, including Reggie Jackson, on the precipice of his age-30 season. Grabbing a dynamic point guard — if Jackson’s injury issues don’t dissipate — should sit atop their bucket list (Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley might be old by then, but nonetheless worth a look).

How Andre Drummond continues to play through adversity will determine whether or not Detroit molds their roster around him in the future.

Statistics and quotes courtesy; Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and TheAthletic.