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In the Shadow of Superman

Andre Drummond is still finding his place in a league that has changed from beneath him. Is he the second coming of Dwight Howard, or is he something else entirely? With his trusty sidekick Reggie Jackson finally healthy, we’ll find out soon enough.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Andre Drummond is only 23, and he already feels a little dated. As a rookie in 2012, he came into the NBA hidden behind the immense hype of Anthony Davis, but he quickly established a unique niche for himself. They were the first two unicorns, near 7-footers unlike any other players in the league. Drummond was an absurdly mobile 280-pound Goliath who could run, jump, and slide his feet like a guard, a player tailor-made for the increasing importance of the pick-and-roll in today’s game. Five years later, though, the stretch 5 is en vogue around the NBA while more traditional centers like Drummond have fallen out of fashion, as 3-point-shooting 7-footers like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid have joined Davis in redefining the position.

Drummond is in a category of his own. It’s easy to catch him out of the corner of your eye and assume you’re looking at a burly, 6-foot-8 small forward. Athletes as big as Drummond just aren’t supposed to move as fluidly as he does. He goes up for rebounds the way Ndamukong Suh rushes the passer, gliding around tight spaces and effortlessly moving bodies out of the way as if they offer no resistance at all. DraftExpress has the lane agility scores of 18 current starting centers in their database, and the only player with a time as low as Drummond is Cody Zeller, who is 40 pounds lighter:

Drummond’s unique physical tools made him an immediate contributor as a 19-year-old rookie, and he has been an elite pick-and-roll finisher and rebounder since he came into the league. In the four seasons since, he has slowly developed other aspects of his game, but leveraging his size and athleticism at the rim remains his bread and butter. But while few players in the NBA can match up with him physically, opposing teams have adjusted to the way he plays. He’s seeing more bodies when he rolls to the rim than ever before. Drummond is averaging 1.9 possessions a game in the pick-and-roll this season, compared to 2.4 last season.

“Teams are sending everybody into the paint because that’s where we are at our best,” said Drummond before the Pistons 95–85 victory over the Mavs on Wednesday. “They are coming in and bringing the extra defender on the pick-and-roll.”

Part of the issue has been the absence of point guard Reggie Jackson, who missed the first 21 games of the season with a knee injury. Jackson is the primary initiator in Stan Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll heavy offense, and he commands a lot of defensive attention when he is in the game, opening up opportunities for everyone else on the floor, particularly Drummond.

“He’s one of the top five penetrators in the league as a guard. When he attacks the rim like that, it’s real easy for me to grab offensive rebounds because everyone knows he can score,” said Drummond. “The defense has to pick their poison: Do you allow an open layup or do you take a chance at me getting the ball?”

Detroit’s dynamic duo bring the best out of one another; Jackson has only played six games so far this season, but it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Drummond has already logged two games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds since Jackson’s return. “The guy that can snatch every defensive rebound can also give us extra possessions,” said Jackson of Drummond after the Pistons 117–90 victory over the Wolves on Friday. “When he does that, he makes us a scary team.”

Drummond’s numbers are simply better across the board when Jackson is on the floor:

It’s a symbiotic relationship that highlights how dependent Drummond is on his teammates when it comes to offense. The Pistons repeatedly feed him the ball in the post over the course of the game, a strategy they have pursued without much success for years. Little has changed this year; he’s still remarkably unproductive with his back to the basket. Drummond posts up five times a game, which yields only 0.72 points per possession, putting him in the 23rd percentile of post scorers in the league. The only other players who average more than four post ups per game and are below the 40th percentile in post scoring are Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, Jusuf Nurkic, and Joel Embiid.

Other than Nurkic, the other high-usage post players that share Drummond’s struggles with efficiency are also high-flying athletes more suited to catching lobs at the rim than backing down defenders in the post. Being a roll man and a post scorer are two very different skill sets, and there aren’t many big men who can excel at both. The players who get more than four post-ups per game and produce points in the league’s 70th percentile or higher are either below-the-rim plodders like Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Love or smaller and more versatile forwards like Paul Millsap.

It’s not just being coached by Van Gundy. Drummond’s absurd physical gifts, as well as his insistence on getting fed in the post, make the Dwight comparisons inevitable. Howard was 23 when the Magic made the NBA Finals in 2009, the same age Drummond is now. The biggest difference between the two is, surprisingly, on defense. Howard was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year during his time with the Magic, nearly single-handedly anchoring one of the league’s best defenses; Drummond, on the other hand, has struggled on that end of the floor since entering the league. He has every tool necessary to be an elite rim protector, but last season was the first in his five-year career in which the Pistons were significantly better defensively when he was on the floor. Looks can be deceiving, and the perception of Drummond’s defensive ability has never aligned with his actual production.

“The real development that’s key for us with [Drummond], number one, is his defense,” Van Gundy told Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto in the middle of November. “For us to really become an elite defensive team that we want to become, he needs to continue to progress at that end of the floor.”

The 2009 Magic were the no. 1–rated defense in the league, and the 2016 Pistons are currently rated no. 2, but Van Gundy’s old defense and the one he deploys now function in drastically different ways. Orlando’s defense was built almost entirely around Howard’s unmatched ability to seal off the lane, as they featured a bunch of offensive-minded players who funneled everything into him. Detroit, conversely, plays a lot of rangy and athletic defenders in front of Drummond, who don’t rely on him cleaning up their mistakes at the rim.

This season, the Pistons have a defensive rating of 104.6 when Drummond is on the floor, the second-worst number on their roster behind only rookie Henry Ellenson. They have a defensive rating of 94.1 when he is off, the best off-court number of anyone on the team. When I asked Van Gundy about the discrepancy on Wednesday, he waved it off with the most charitable explanation possible. “That’s mostly a reflection of [Drummond] being on the floor with starters instead of reserves,” he said.

However, Drummond also has the highest defensive rating of any player in the Pistons’ starting five. By defensive efficiency, Detroit’s best defensive center is actually Drummond’s backup: Every player in the Pistons rotation who has played at least 100 minutes with Drummond and reserve center Aron Baynes has a significantly lower defensive rating when paired with Baynes. There’s something more going on than just the distribution of minutes:

Baynes has quietly been one of the Pistons’ most valuable players this season, with the second-highest individual net rating (plus-5.9) of players in the rotation, behind only Jon Leuer. Van Gundy has been singing Baynes’s praises all season, and the Pistons signed current third-string center Boban Marjanovic to a big contract in the offseason partly because they don’t expect to be able to afford Baynes if he opts out of his contract at the end of this season.

For his part, Baynes credits most of the team’s defensive performance when is playing to communication. “I just try and communicate as best I can. Being down low and in the back of the defense, you see everything so I try to keep everyone in the right position,” said Baynes. “The more you talk, the easier it is for everyone on the court. When five guys are on the court moving on a string, it’s a lot easier than playing as individuals.”

Baynes, like Drummond, came into the league five years ago, but he’s already 30 years old, which is closer to the age when most big men really start to figure out the mental aspects of playing good team defense. Howard, who started winning Defensive Player of the Year Awards at 23, is more of the exception than the rule. Drummond makes so many mistakes on that end of the floor that could be corrected easily.

There are just far too many possessions in which he doesn’t rotate over and allows easy shots to opposing teams. Watch Drummond on this dunk by Mavs rookie Dorian Finney-Smith. To be sure, Tobias Harris should not be getting beat this badly on a closeout, especially on an inconsistent shooter like Finney-Smith, but Drummond doesn’t have his head turned and isn’t involved in any action on the backside of the play. He’s watching the ball the whole time. He just doesn’t come over.

Drummond has never been a great shot blocker, and opponents shoot a very healthy 52.9 percent against him at the rim, according to NBA.com’s player tracking numbers, which is 5.1 percentage points higher than their average against the league as a whole.

“I’m not worried about blocking shots. It’s more stopping [opponents] from getting shots up,” said Drummond. “I try to make people take tough shots and get a hand in their face. Keep guys out of the paint.”

There’s a disconnect going on. For a player who says all of the right things when it comes to defense, there doesn’t seem to much of an application of them when he’s on the court.

What could help the Pistons is leveraging the things Drummond can do well defensively. The Pistons drop their big men back in the paint when defending the pick-and-roll, which is the best way to use a crafty but slow-footed interior defender like Baynes. However, dropping back is far less useful for a big man who is a relative sieve at the rim. What makes Drummond special is his ability to slide his feet and move like a guard. So why not unleash him and play him in a more aggressive scheme that features hedging, blitzing and even switching screens? It’s not something they do often, if at all: Drummond has been used in less than 10 possessions guarding the ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season.

That’s the strategy the best defenses are increasingly using in the playoffs, which is why smaller, more mobile centers like Tristan Thompson and Draymond Green have found so much success on that end of the floor in the postseason. Drummond’s combination of size and speed would give the Pistons all of the benefits of playing a smaller lineup on perimeter defense without giving up anything in terms of rebounding, finishing at the rim on offense, or size in the paint. The Pistons also have the personnel on the perimeter to make a switching strategy feasible, with rangy and athletic guards like Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who can match up with bigger players.

“I’m quick enough to get out and guard guards. So when big men play at the 3-point line, it’s not a tough task for me,” said Drummond.

Switching simplifies defensive responsibilities on the pick-and-roll, and a lot of athletic young big men prefer that to the intricate choreography that goes into defensive strategies involving multiple players.

“I actually like switching more than staying back [on the pick-and-roll]. I feel like it’s tougher to stay back and try to play with the guard in terms of making a decision,” Blazers forward Noah Vonleh told me before a game against the Mavs earlier this season. “When you switch, it’s just: Guard this guy who is right in front of you.”

Detroit is still figuring out the best way to use Drummond, especially with this group of players. The trade-off to playing more versatile defenders than the 2009 Magic is the Pistons don’t have nearly the same type of perimeter shooters. Detroit starts four players around Drummond — Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Harris — who shoot 3s reasonably well, with all averaging between 34.8 percent and 37.4 percent from 3. However, there’s no one with the gravity of Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis to open up the floor and create space for everyone else to operate. The Pistons are only 29th in the league in 3-point attempts per game, and they are 18th in 3-point accuracy. A spread pick-and-roll team that can’t take and make a lot of 3s is playing with one hand tied behind its back, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that they have an offense ranking in the bottom half of the NBA.

There isn’t nearly as much space for Drummond to operate in the paint as there was for Howard, which is how Drummond ends up with games like he did against the Mavs on Wednesday, when he only took three shots despite tearing down 17 rebounds. One trend to watch is how much Van Gundy turns to Baynes instead of Drummond down the stretch. Drummond’s net rating this season (minus-1.5) is more than seven points lower than Baynes, and Baynes ability to quarterback a defense and maneuver through tighter spaces in the offense can make life easier for everyone else. When the Mavs went to Hack-a-Drummond in the fourth quarter, Van Gundy immediately put Baynes in the game and the team didn’t miss a beat. The good news is that Drummond isn’t a guy who minds sacrificing, and after the game, you could find him joking around in the locker room with Baynes.

In the long term, though, the Pistons are only going to go as far as their franchise big man can take them. If he can continue to improve defensively, Drummond would be their only player with the ability to take over a playoff series on both sides of the ball. They have no one else who can force an elite team to adjust to them. The Pistons have a 14–13 record, but their plus-3.3 point differential is third-best in the East, and they expect to start moving up in the standings now that they are closer to full health. This group made its first appearance in the playoffs last season, when they were swept out of the first round by the Cavs in games that were much more competitive than the final outcome of the series would indicate. None of the league’s other young unicorns play on a team with as much potential to contend in the near future as the Pistons. Andre Drummond may have his moment in the sun yet.