November 9, 2013 at 11:59 pm

Vincent Goodwill

Pistons' Greg Monroe playing with purpose, as restricted free agency approaches

Greg Monroe is averaging career highs in points (17.8), rebounds (11.8), blocks (1.4) and free-throw shooting (78.1 percent). (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)

Auburn Hills -- Maurice Cheeks was asked before a game this season if he knew the contract status of certain players, and he coyly denied any knowledge of who had more to play for than others.

Technically, as coach, it shouldn’t matter to him who will be dealing with what come July -- but only what they can do for him in the team framework from October to May, assuming the Pistons clinch an expected playoff berth.

But he’s no fool, nor is he some naïve observer, as he seemingly likes to be perceived. He knows that through the excitement Andre Drummond provides, to the fresh start and all-around play of Josh Smith, to the creativity and willingness of Brandon Jennings to show the NBA he’s not a forgotten man in the land of great point guards, that perhaps Cheeks’ best players have something to play for individually this season.

Greg Monroe undoubtedly has plenty to play for. However, as unexciting as he might be for Pistons fans looking to rid the taste of the last few seasons from their mouths, he’s just as critical — if not more so than the aforementioned newcomers — to the success this franchise could achieve this season.

Monroe is approaching restricted free agency, and for the first time in his young career, he’s facing questions about his standing in the Pistons franchise. He ably and quietly shouldered the load through the drama of the John Kuester and Lawrence Frank tenures that didn’t end in playoff appearances.

With the acquisition of Smith and emergence of Drummond, some have openly wondered if Monroe fits with two dynamic and athletic players, because his game is more ground than air. The shiny new toys have arrived and the old standby doesn’t look as appealing to some observers and even a segment of fans.

And with any player about to hit restricted free agency, the talk will start about a player becoming too expensive, too costly for future plans, i.e. “trade him for something while you can.”

Those conversations didn’t happen with draftmates Paul George (Indiana, max contract), John Wall (Washington, max contract), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento, max contract) and even Utah’s Derrick Favors, who got a sizeable deal without having nearly the production Monroe has had in three seasons.

Monroe pulled the scribes aside, weeks before the Oct. 31 deadline of having to sign an extension before reaching restricted free agency. He playfully, but firmly, said he wasn’t going to address any contract talks at any point during the season.

He doesn’t want it to become a distraction, but it might have had a positive effect on how he’s been able to produce in this young season. For the moment he’s averaging career highs in points (17.8), rebounds (11.8), blocks (1.4) and free-throw shooting (78.1 percent).

Monroe’s 5.4 offensive rebounds per game lead the NBA, and it’s an indication of a willingness to get dirty in the interior, even if his shots are blocked by more athletic defenders.

It can be seen on the defensive end, too, as evidenced by uber-athletic Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook getting his layup pinned to the glass by Monroe as if Monroe was wearing Drummond’s jersey.

He’s much more active defensively, a stark contrast to players who often play “contract-year defense,” -- players who stay away from playing hard on the defensive end to avoid injury.

He’s put mobile players like Nene (Wizards) and Steven Adams (Thunder) in the spin cycle due to his nimble moves in the paint, and has played with more fire in the first handful of games than in his first few seasons -- and doesn’t deny this season has extra motivation.

“Anybody who has experienced that would say yes,” Monroe said. “It’s something you can’t focus on at the end of the day. It’s about winning. Like I’ve said, that stuff will take care of itself. As long as you’re winning and you’re helping the team win, that part will take care of itself.”

Monroe won’t say it, but no player likes being tagged as being a good player on a bad team or just someone who puts up numbers without playing meaningful games.

Whether he’s worth a maximum contract remains to be determined, but consistency counts for something, particularly on a team full of wild cards, and Monroe can be easily forgotten about by fans.

But when he hits restricted free agency this summer, NBA teams won’t forget about him if he keeps playing like this. And if he does, he’ll play in some meaningful games -- which could make for some interesting negotiations.