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Andre Drummond Gets a Chance to Start Over

The Lakers’ polarizing center is best known for putting up gaudy numbers on bad teams. Can the 27-year-old change his image while doing less on a good one? “I owed it to myself to be part of something bigger than me.”

Juliette Toma

Andre Drummond was trying to adapt. Trying to be what others wanted him to be. Trying to be what others thought he should be.

So every day a few summers back, when he was still playing for the Pistons, Drummond dedicated an entire offseason to just shooting from far out. The 6-foot-10, 279-pound big man abandoned post workouts for the 3-point line and would endlessly catch and shoot, catch and shoot. From farther and farther away. It must have been a strange sight. The NBA’s reigning rebounding champ was out of his element. But around the league, centers were beginning to shoot 3s more regularly, so he felt like he needed to become a center who shot 3s more regularly.

Traditional big men like him who played with their backs to the basket were a dying breed. So he tried something drastic. Sure, Drummond had always implemented offensive drills within his workouts, but just offensive drills? And nothing but 3-pointers?

It was jarring. It was uncomfortable. It was opposite of his focus—of everything that had made him a lottery pick, a two-time All-Star, and a walking double-double. He was known for his tenacity on the boards, making 20 rebounds a night look … easy. Routine. His size, presence, and hustle allowed him to morph into one of the NBA’s all-time best rebounders. And that made him him.

But scoring on the perimeter? That wasn’t him.

“This is crazy,” he thought to himself. “But I gotta do it. I gotta stay current with these NBA trends.”

Ever since he first picked up a ball, back in elementary school, back when he was awkward and awful, and parents used to scream, “Take him out of there!” he has tried to belong. Tried to slump his shoulders, hide behind teammates, hoping he could shrink into the background.

Levi Gillespie, his high school coach at Capital Prep in Hartford, Connecticut, used to have to tell him: “Andre! Stand tall! Just drop-step and dunk it!” His classmates laughed at how Andre’s too-small school uniform khakis looked like capris on his Gumby-like frame. They called him a gentle giant. He was so big, yet played so small as a freshman. “Like a mouse,” says Stepfan Holley, his friend and former Capital Prep teammate.

But years later, after that summer of shooting and long after making the NBA, Drummond still wasn’t exactly sure how to fit in on the floor and appease the basketball world. In games, he barely ended up launching those long-distance shots he’d practiced: just 38 attempts in 2018-19, 35 in 2019-20. None of the practice made a difference. The notoriously poor free throw shooter couldn’t find his range from deep either, shooting just 13.7 percent.

It was a frustrating time for Drummond, who tends to be hard on himself. He has a habit of slapping his wrist when he makes an error. He used to kick chairs in private workouts. He labors on every little detail, wanting, needing to get them exactly right. His mother, Christine Cameron, whom he calls his “third coach,” often reminds him: “You’re not going to be perfect. Forget about it. Just move on to the next play.” But Drummond wants every play to be great. Not good, great. And to make matters worse, Detroit was mostly dreadful during Drummond’s tenure, and the center beat himself up over the staggering amount of losses.

Something changed in Drummond after that season. “I told myself: I’m no longer going to try to stay with the [NBA] trends,” Drummond says. “I’m going to do what works for me and what my team needs for it to help them win.” Sure, he would keep working to evolve—more posting up, better face-up game—but he would do so as himself.

No more trying to defend himself against the critics who said he wasn’t a winner, that he amassed impressive stats only because he played for a losing team, and that he wasn’t a hard worker. He didn’t feel the need to tell anyone or post to Instagram that he was running sprints at 6 a.m. every day, pushing himself with two-a-day workouts by 2019-20.

“The moment I was OK with who I am,” Drummond says, “was when the game became a lot more peaceful for me.”

But something still gnawed at him. Motivated him. A part of him knew he wasn’t truly at peace. And maybe he wouldn’t be, until he figured out a way to win.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers
Drummond attempts a floater during a game with the Lakers last week
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s the main reason why Drummond joined the Lakers: to win. After spending the first eight years of his career in Detroit—the team finished above .500 in only one of them—he was unceremoniously traded to Cleveland, where he once again found anything but stability. After just 33 games spread over two seasons, the cellar-dwelling Cavaliers made Drummond inactive until they could trade him and his $28.8 million salary, essentially saying they had no use for the big man. When no deal materialized after weeks of waiting, they released him. His worth, his future in the NBA, seemed in peril. Drummond yearned for a new home. For a place that valued him. A place that his game could bring value to.

“It was a chance to start over again,” Drummond says of his opportunity with the Lakers, who he signed with in March after clearing waivers. “I owed it to myself to be part of something bigger than me. To be part of a team that has a chance to win. And I believe that the Lakers can do that.”

Drummond reportedly had contact with several other teams, including the Clippers, Knicks, and Celtics. He could have fit in with any of those franchises, but he says the Lakers gave him a chance at winning a championship this season.

Drummond is now being tested in ways he hasn’t been before: He is no longer his team’s superstar. He isn’t the first option anymore. Not even the second. For the first time in his career, he’s playing alongside two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He isn’t getting the same number of touches he’s used to.

He’s trying to build a new identity. Trying to figure out how to be the best version of himself on this team. How to be most impactful on this team. That involves sacrifice. Facing the unknown. That’s not easy, having spent nearly a decade playing one way, and now approaching the game in a completely different one. But he’s embracing it: “He’s willing to sacrifice,” says Phil Handy, a Lakers assistant coach. “That part right there is huge. Sometimes you get some guys, you have to fight ’em. Drum has been great.”

Handy appreciates that Drummond listens, asks questions. Focuses intently in the film room. He seems to always be present. “He’s showing up in the sense of, ‘Man, I wanna get better,’” Handy says.

The first time the two talked in depth, Handy asked Drummond what was most important to him. Without hesitation Drummond told him: “Winning. I just want to win.” The more they spent time together, the more Handy preached patience.

“Listen, man. It’ll probably take you upward of 10, maybe even 20 games to figure out your comfort level with this team,” Handy told him.

Drummond nodded, not saying anything, though he says something burned inside him to figure things out right away.

“And that’s OK,” Handy said. “That’s to be expected. So don’t get frustrated. Don’t get down on yourself. Don’t look at the stat sheet and say, ‘Man, I’m not being productive,’ because that’s not what’s required of you here.”

What’s required of him is doing the little things that don’t show up in box scores: planting solid screens, rolling to the basket hard. Being aggressive on the glass, defending intensely.

“Doing the dirty work around the paint for us,” says Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who also played with Drummond in Detroit. Just as Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee helped the Lakers win a title last season, the Lakers hope Drummond will be integral to this year’s run. “I know he can do it,” Caldwell-Pope says. “He’s just really trying to find himself.”

“Once he gets comfortable,” Caldwell-Pope continues, “then I feel like it’s gonna be no stopping him.”

Sure enough, it looks like Handy and Caldwell-Pope are right. After some struggles out of the gate, and now with the return of James and Davis, Drummond seems to finally be finding his rhythm with the Lakers. He had 16 points and 18 rebounds against the Knicks last Tuesday, and 11 points, 15 boards, and two blocks against the Pacers on Saturday, helping the Lakers close the regular season with five straight wins and recording a double-double in four of them.

Lately, the Lakers coaching staff has been urging Drummond to run the floor harder. So he’s pushing himself to run and run and run. It hasn’t resulted in his getting the basketball, necessarily, but it’s resulted in his teammates getting the basketball, and getting open shots, as he puts pressure on the defense. His coaches have been thrilled.

Each game, he looks a little more comfortable. A little more natural in the purple and gold. Still, it’s been a steep learning curve. Sometimes Drummond looks promising, other times puzzling. He can be dominant, then quiescent. Part of that is because he sat for nearly two months in Cleveland without any game reps. And not having James and Davis due to injury during his first few weeks didn’t help, either.

The coaches want Drummond to ditch his soft-spoken, gentle nature. They want him to fully understand how big he is, and how powerful he can be.

“He’s like a big teddy bear,” Handy says. “Forget about the teddy bear, I need the grizzly bear.”

Drummond is in the midst of a metamorphosis, showing glimpses of growth. Of magnificence. “It’s like the light bulb goes off,” Handy says.

Right before halftime against the Pacers last week, James dribbled at the top of the key, setting up an incoming pick that Davis was about to set for him. Drummond stood near the opposite short corner, waiting, giving James space, not wanting to bring any more defenders into the paint. James attacked the screen and dropped a bounce pass to a rolling Davis, who then spotted Drummond instinctively cutting to the basket. Davis threw him a beautiful pass, and Drummond hammered the ball down, hanging on the rim.

There it was: the light bulb. The grizzly bear. The tantalizing potential of what Drummond could be, of what this year’s Lakers could be.

Detroit Pistons v Atlanta Hawks
Drummond grabs a rebound during his rookie season in 2012
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Drummond is now nine years deep in the NBA. Hearing that he is coming up on a decade is somewhat surreal for the 27-year-old. “In basketball years, I’m getting up there,” he says, laughing.

A lot has changed since he was a 19-year-old rookie living with his mother in Detroit. She cooked for him, washed his clothes back then. Just wanted to make sure he was OK. She used to cry in the shower, almost preparing for an eventual setback, as mothers can sometimes do, thinking to herself: “Can he survive this league?”

Doubters had already started picking her son’s game apart and questioning his desire. “They said he wouldn’t be able to make it even before he got there,” Christine says.

Jere Quinn, Drummond’s coach at St. Thomas More, where he spent his final two years of high school before a one-and-done season at UConn, remembers NBA scouts asking him, “Why doesn’t Andre like basketball?”

There was always a discrepancy between what people thought of Drummond and who he was behind the scenes. Because he made basketball look so easy at times, people thought he was lazy. Uninterested. But that was far from accurate: “This kid lived in the gym,” Quinn says.

In high school, Drummond suffered a stress fracture in his foot and was told to sit out, but he refused. He’d shoot in his boot. He never completed anything with half effort. His mom wouldn’t let him. He had to be focused on school and basketball. She wouldn’t let him sleep over at friends’ houses. Wouldn’t let him play unless he had completed all of his chores.

In Drummond’s first tournament while playing varsity, he dribbled the ball down court on a fast break. The crowd was so excited to see the big man barrel toward the basket for a dunk. But what did Drummond do? He fumbled the ball off his knee and watched it roll out of bounds, no defender in sight.

But soon Drummond’s athleticism and work ethic merged. He developed moves around the rim. Put people on his back. It became clear he could become great. Before he was drafted by the Pistons in 2012, he asked coaches what he could do to stay relevant in the league, how he could set himself apart to have a long, fruitful career. They told him to find something he could perfect, something he could master even if he might not play heavy minutes or be involved much in the offense.

That’s when it occurred to Drummond that rebounding could be his calling card. “Nobody hangs their hat on rebounding,” Drummond says. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to be the best rebounder to ever play. Nobody wants to go after a rebound every possession, but I’ll do it.’ That’s where the passion came from: wanting it more than somebody else.”

It showed in the way he moved. The kind of shape he was in for someone his size. “Dre was the fastest person on our team,” says Ish Smith, his former Pistons teammate, now with the Wizards. The 6-foot-10 Drummond always came first in sprints. He stayed before practice, after practice, before shootaround, after shootaround, to work on his biggest weakness: free throws. “Dre worked his behind off,” Smith says.

Drummond was playing almost 35 minutes a night, sprinting 94 feet, smothering pick-and-rolls, protecting the basket, rebounding, and absorbing contact. At times he stayed in for 20-to-25-minute stretches. “For a center that’s pretty unheard of,” says Sean Sweeney, a Pistons assistant coach. “The amount of effort he had to give when he played—you can’t do that unless you’re in great shape. And you can’t get in great shape unless you work. He was very coachable. And he worked extremely hard.”

Some critics continued to point out his defensive lapses. Moments of indifference. When Drummond thinks back to that time, he thinks about the losing. How painful and humbling it was, how badly he wanted to turn things around. And he began to berate himself for mistakes. Let them bleed into the next sequence. “I’d allow the last play to take me out of the game,” he says.

Even if he had a 20-20 night, he’d obsess over a missed shot, a missed rebound. He often put losses on his shoulders. Afterward he’d watch his errors on film, again and again. “I would have told myself to be more patient,” Drummond says. “Everything don’t go your way. You can’t expect for things to be perfect.”

“You have to let it go,” he began thinking during timeouts. “Just allow the game to happen.”

The criticism grew louder. But Drummond didn’t want to respond vocally any longer. He rarely showed emotion on the court, choosing to work on his game away from the spotlight. He didn’t post a ton of workouts on social media. He didn’t talk about being a leader—he just did it. He’d practice with the Pistons’ summer league team. He’d set up team bowling outings. He’d bring the team over to his home, hiring a chef for the night.

“I don’t really do the screaming on the court. I’m not one to do the antics,” Drummond says. “It may look like I’m lackadaisical or not putting any effort into it, but I play to the best of my abilities every day.”

He’d try to explain that to the media, but, after a while, he just … stopped. As he got older, as he became more sure of who he was, and who he wanted to be, he no longer felt the need to defend himself.

“Nobody’s really going to understand,” he says. “People can’t really put themselves in my shoes.”

So he kept rebounding. Kept pushing for the playoffs, only to come up short in two first-round exits in 2016 and 2019. “That was the toughest time for me,” he says.

And then, it abruptly ended. The Pistons were languishing, decimated by injuries. Their 19-34 record ranked 10th in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20. The two-time All-Star was traded to Cleveland for Brandon Knight, John Henson, and a 2023 second-round pick in February 2020. Detroit decided to free cap space and focus on a full rebuild for the future, on younger players.

Drummond was 26 at the time. Not quite young, not quite old. Young enough to still contribute, old enough to contemplate one day not being able to. He was recognizing his basketball mortality. Facing the short shelf life of a pro basketball player, beginning to be passed over for what’s shinier, newer.

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers
Drummond during a game agains the Hawks in February
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

He was ready for a fresh start, though. Excited, even. But he didn’t know he was headed for basketball limbo.

Arriving in Cleveland, Drummond was eager to help his younger teammates get adjusted to the league. He enjoyed being around them. Some were 19, 20, 21 years old, and he remembered what it was like to be at that age. He tried to fill a mentor role, teaching them how to take possessions seriously, each sequence with maximum effort. At the same time, he wanted to teach them perspective.

“Remembering this is a kid’s game at the end of the day,” he says. “You have to have fun while out there.”

He loved most of his time in Cleveland, until the very end, when the team announced it was going to trade him but then couldn’t find a suitor. Weeks and weeks passed, and Drummond’s future seemed stunningly uncertain for a 27-year-old former All-Star. Was this really the end for him? Suddenly being the league’s best rebounder didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. The NBA had changed so much that his value had plummeted.

He didn’t know who would want him. But he remained quiet. He didn’t want to say anything negative about Cleveland. He wanted to be a professional. So he just sat on the bench in street clothes, stared out at the court with a look on his face that was neither happy nor sad. It was a look of acceptance.

But he wasn’t fine. No one would be. His career was at a crossroads, his worth questioned. And it was the first time he really realized basketball was a business. A business that had paid him over $100 million, that now seemed to be done with him—and players of his mold. How quickly things can change. How fleeting all of it can be.

“You have to be made of stone if that doesn’t hurt you,” Christine says. “It hurts. It hurts. Especially when you know what you’re doing and what you still have to offer. It hurts like the holy hell.”

Drummond’s mom felt her son’s pain, but she kept telling him to stay positive. “You’ll be all right. There’s one person up there, the good Lord, and he’s not sleeping,” she kept reminding him. “Nothing happens without a reason. Trust him.”

When he finally joined the Lakers in late March, he focused on finding his footing with his new teammates. Moving forward, not looking back. Trying to create as much chemistry as he could with the team. Drummond focused on finding joy: grabbing it, hanging on to it. He wouldn’t let his situation, or anything, really, stop him from feeling happiness on the court or off it. He considers joy not just a feeling but a state of mind worth protecting.

With age comes wisdom. Drummond is more comfortable with himself now. He realizes that even though he is able to let things go now, his perfectionism is part of what still drives him. Which is why, when he was struggling early on to adjust to his new team’s system, scoring four points or fewer in three of his first five games, he was frustrated with himself. There was that perfectionism again. The one always coexisting with joy. Pushing him to be better, stronger.

“It’s because I care,” he says. So do his teammates. Drummond says the Lakers have a winning culture that goes beyond basketball. He notices how his new teammates always hang out outside of practice, a level of camaraderie he isn’t used to. “They do everything together,” he says. “Going to eat, simple things of being next to each other in the locker room, always communicating.”

He’s slowly opening up to them. Learning where they like the ball, who they are as people. He’s cherishing the chance to play with James and Davis. With teammates laser-focused on winning a title. “Everybody’s new to him,” Caldwell-Pope says. “He’s in the process of getting to know everybody. From where I know him in Detroit, he’s changed a lot. From being quiet to opening up, being more talkative in the locker room.”

Drummond knows that if he wants his teammates to see him as he truly is, this new self that is adapting, changing, growing, then he has to keep being open to change. Keep being open to challenges.

In one of his first games as a Laker, against the Nets, a flash of the new Drummond appeared. He looked dominant. He was aggressive in the post, in the way that his new coaches have been pushing him to be. He backed defenders down. He softly poured in a few hooks. He ran the floor hard.

One play, he caught the ball at the elbow, turned, and faced the basket. He faked to his left, getting his defender on his heels. Drummond drove hard right, all the way to the hoop, overpowering his man and drawing the foul.

In an unusual gesture of bravado, Drummond pumped his hand down, nearly touching the ground, demonstrating how little his opponent was, as if to say: He’s too small! He can’t guard me!

There it was, finally: the grizzly bear.

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