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Will Andre Drummond Get Another Shot at Stardom?

The Pistons center’s rise stalled out amid questions over his free throw stroke and effort. Now he’s out to prove that a big man can still thrive in the small-ball era.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was garbage time for the visiting Detroit Pistons, and 19-year-old Andre Drummond was switched onto Dwyane Wade, an NBA veteran for a full decade at the time. Out of the paint and out of place, Drummond reached for the ball too early, as a rookie will. But the young center, only 43 games into his first season in January 2013, had a 7-foot-6 wingspan to bail him out. He picked off Wade and fled for a dunk. On the very next possession, just 42 seconds later, Drummond stripped the veteran again.

“Maybe he should’ve been guarding Dwyane Wade the whole game,” the announcer said.

Today, though, Drummond is more defined by what happened immediately after swiping Wade: Ray Allen fouled him on the other end, and Drummond missed both attempts. The broadcast made no note of it.

Five seasons later, Drummond is both a franchise player and one benched during fourth quarters. Listed at 6-foot-11 and 279 pounds, Drummond still can impose his massive self on a game, but he also hasn’t figured out the free throw line. Hack-a-Shaq became Hack-a-Dre. (That said, O’Neal made over half his attempts — Drummond’s career average sits at 38.1 percent.) He is a prototypical big man in a bygone era.

After a fall to ninth on draft night, Drummond became an All-Star, made the playoffs, inked a maximum contract, failed to reach the second round, became a defensive liability, had his effort questioned, had his effort questioned again, stayed inside, watched the league push outward, and missed a whopping 1,110 free throws. His legend ballooned. Then, with the rest of his basketball career ahead of him at 24, it popped.

What, exactly, does Andre Drummond have to do to prove himself? In basketball circles, where stories of player personality and work ethic are swapped like confidential intel, that question is asked a different way: Does he want to?

The thought emerges with every brick at the free throw line. Each time Drummond was yanked last season in crunch time — before the other team could start purposely fouling him as a strategy to regain possession — his teammates noticed. How could they not?

“Yeah, everybody knows,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope told me. After spending his first four NBA seasons in Detroit, Caldwell-Pope signed with Los Angeles this summer in free agency. “Free throws were what [Drummond] really needed to do. Everybody shoots a hundred, 1,000 jumpers, 500 jumpers every day. So 100 free throws is nothing. […] With Dre, it’s just hard to keep him focused.”

Former Detroit shooting coach Dave Hopla, who was on staff with the Knicks, Wizards, and Raptors before Stan Van Gundy brought him on with the Pistons, shared the sentiment. “When I was with him and watching him two years there,” Hopla said, “to get him to shoot even a hundred free throws, it’s tough, because he just can’t focus and concentrate for that period of time.”

Hopla said he attempted workouts where Drummond shot two free throws at each basket, then switched. He incorporated breaks. He tried alternating with another person. He changed it up to not shooting at all for a while, and when that didn’t work, he shifted again, shooting back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. “We tried everything.” Drummond told me over the phone that Hopla’s recollection of those practices were “someone else’s opinion.” Through email, Van Gundy said that “Andre works extremely hard on free throw shooting, and it’s something we are constantly focused on in providing as many resources as possible.”

Hopla was not one of those resources for long. After being brought on in 2015 to, as he understood it, “help Andre,” the famed shooting coach was switched off of the big man by December of that year. For the rest of Hopla’s two-year contract — which expired this past May and was not renewed by the team — he did not work with Drummond again.

“Didn’t do anything with him,” Hopla said. “Just ‘Hey, how you doing?’ ‘Good game.’ ‘Great job.’ ‘How’s the family, Andre?’ You know. It’s crazy. … Blew my mind, too. Especially when you sit there, and one game he sets an NBA record missing the most free throws. … And you’re just sitting there, and you’re helpless. I just stayed in my lane, and that was it.”

Drummond, however, also felt a bit helpless because of a major health issue that he largely kept to himself. After breaking his nose in college, he says a deviated septum became unbearable last season. “It was really a tough season for me to breathe,” Drummond says. “I didn’t have my whole entire left nostril. [It] was completely closed, so it was really tough for me to catch my wind. … It was just hard for me to get myself going. Not to use that as an excuse, but that’s just really what it was. It was really tough for me to fight through that, and it was really frustrating, which resulted into just the lack of effort.”

Caldwell-Pope said that “some players knew, not everybody” about Drummond’s health issue. “He didn’t really talk about it as much, and it didn’t seem like was affecting him a lot.”

Drummond’s lack of production last season was not limited to the line, either. It became a national story line that the Pistons had a better defensive rating with Aron Baynes on the floor instead of their franchise player. Baynes could orchestrate underneath, directing his teammates and calling out picks; Drummond was a quieter presence.

“I told [Drummond] the other day,” his teammate Tobias Harris said last month, “even if he just says a couple of words defensively, talk a little bit louder — you might not even be saying the right things — people are going to listen.”

Sometimes last season, he simply didn’t have the energy. Drummond said his breathing issues kept him from sleeping well and also affected his stamina in workouts. “I just wasn’t happy with myself, with the way my body was,” Drummond said. “A lot was really piling up.”

Pursuing hobbies even proved difficult. Drummond dropped a verse in a rap song in March. One day later, he had to clarify on Twitter that basketball was his focus. “Whatever he was doing off the court, whether it was DJing or whatever, I think he kind of let that affect his play on the court — sometimes,” Caldwell-Pope says. “And then sometimes, he’ll be a monster on the court. You’ll never know what the hell happened.”

It also didn’t help that Reggie Jackson, the team’s starting point guard and thus the player tasked with setting Drummond up for clean looks, missed the start of the season. Ish Smith, the backup, focused more on facilitation. When Jackson, a driving, score-first guard, returned in December, the team stumbled, going 7–13. “Reggie came back,” Van Gundy told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in February, “and we’ve struggled ever since.”

Jackson’s teammates didn’t believe the guard was healthy enough to come back when he did. They noticed how the pace slowed with Jackson in the game, and how he seemed timid pushing off his leg. Drummond called the point guard’s return “a big adjustment,” but was also sympathetic after a December players-only meeting. “The way they came at Reggie wasn’t cool,” Drummond told ESPN. “You can’t beat a guy up for not playing at 100 percent right after coming back. Guys who have played with pain — you think they would be more sensitive.”

He could relate to being constrained. “Last year was probably the worst [my nose] has ever been,” Drummond told me. “It wasn’t just breathing.” He had surgery in May to fix the deviated septum, and says he spent the offseason giving his workouts an intensity he couldn’t before. “This summer was really a summer for me to just be free,” Drummond said, “and not feel like I’m in prison.”

Pushing for position, his hand outstretched, Drummond could’ve fooled you. He caught the ball after working his defender, 20-year-old Thon Maker, toward the elbow. After a few dribbles, Drummond hop-stepped away from Maker, and sunk a step-back jumper. Save some awkward handles, he looked like he had been this player his entire career.

For two weeks of preseason basketball, Drummond shot like a man atoning. Against the Bucks, Drummond went 4-for-6 from the charity stripe. Against the Raptors, 6-for-6. The Hornets, 6-for-8. He only managed that accuracy (a combined 80 percent) or better four times last season, and all in games where he took three or fewer attempts at the line. In exhibitions, like the NBA Africa game in South Africa, Drummond let six 3-pointers fly. One even stuck. In the Drew League, he put up 40 points draining jumpers and forcefully taking in passes from the elbow.

Drummond was nonchalant when asked about the shooting over the phone, saying he doesn’t “really plan to shoot jump shots” this season. They would never fly in Van Gundy’s four-out offense anyway. “I don’t pay attention to those summer leagues and exhibitions,” Van Gundy said. “Andre knows the way we want him to play.”

Indeed, while Drummond seemed happy letting it fly freely in the preseason, finding his way back to All-Star-level notoriety starts with sticking to what he does best. Even as the pace of the game quickens and the players get smaller, Drummond knows how the Pistons want him to play. It’s the same style he once thrived in. But until that’s proved to work again — until Drummond has proved he put in the work — his rare athleticism will be undercut by his free throw stroke. Still, at just 24, it’s worth a shot.