Greg Monroe, above, and new teammate Josh Smith play the same position, power forward. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Milwaukee — It’s been a season of firsts for Greg Monroe, and none of them appear to be working in his favor, during the most important year in his career to date.
He’s playing for another new coach, Maurice Cheeks, with another point guard, Brandon Jennings, and before he got a chance to adjust to playing with a player he campaigned for the Pistons to draft, Andre Drummond, the team signed Josh Smith this offseason — a player whose who’s natural position is the same one Monroe plays now, power forward.
Now, he has to deal with concerns about his future in Detroit as he’s approaching restricted free agency in this coming July. After being viewed as a franchise staple for three years as the team rebounded and rebuilt, itself, outsiders see him as the piece that doesn’t fit alongside Drummond and Smith — which has led to speculation on whether he should be traded.
It’s going to be tough to establish his market value this summer. Young, productive bigs usually don’t hit the market and, if they do, the price is at a premium. Draftmates DeMarcus Cousins received a max contract, and Utah’s Derrick Favors signed an extension that averages around $12.5 million annually.
Monroe has historically been a better player than Favors, who averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds last season before coming on this year, averaging 13.5 points and 9.1 boards. Monroe averaged 16 points and 9.6 rebounds last year and is at 14.2 and 8.7 this season, respectively. Wednesday night, he had 18 points and nine rebounds.
Monroe, 23, has admitted the talk has affected him a little. “It does, to be honest. We’re still trying to get things right, here,” he said. “To see that stuff … I just focus on what we’re doing here. I’m here. If that changes, then I’ll move forward. If it never does, I’ll focus on playing these games and trying to win these games.”
To be clear, the Pistons aren’t actively shopping Monroe but, as the trade deadline approaches, more and more teams will begin to inquire about Monroe’s availability. Adjusting to new teammates and, more importantly, an undefined pecking order has led to uneven play and an uncertain unsure player on the offensive end.
“It’s definitely been a change, and it’s still an adjustment,” Monroe said. “Offensively, it’s a new system we’re running, new players, new coaching staff.”
Cheeks wants Monroe to be more assertive, both with the ball and with his teammates. Cheeks played with Julius Erving and Moses Malone, who voiced their desires when they wanted the ball to come their way.
“A big guy can get his shot anytime; all he has to do is tell his point guard,” Cheeks said. “Especially if he’s playing well or had it going and hasn’t had a shot. He doesn’t have to tell me, tell his point guard.”
It’s not in Monroe’s nature to bark at his teammates as much as he does the officials when a call doesn’t go his way, considering Jennings doesn’t call the set plays on offense and Monroe isn’t used to asking for touches.
“Nah, I’ve never done that. It’s tough because they’re calling plays,” Monroe said. “So I don’t want to sound like that selfish guy, so it’s tough to go in and say that.”
Monroe is the player most affected by the new alignment because Drummond doesn’t need the ball and the one thing Monroe needs the most on the floor is what the Pistons don’t have: spacing.
“You can say that, definitely,” Monroe said. “With the new personnel and size that we have, teams are packing it in more. So it’s a little more difficult to get spacing.”
Pesky opposing guards have an easier time coming to the block while Monroe, ever deliberate, probes for space on the interior — which makes it hard to demand it if you can’t hold onto it.
“If you say bring me the ball and you get stripped, you can’t do it,” Cheeks said. “He’s not gonna bring it to you again. And he shouldn’t. It’s how that works.”
Players usually perform best with contract talks looming, and Monroe is dealing with the reality of getting fewer touches, fewer opportunities in an ever-changing Pistons offense. Jennings is trying to balance between facilitating and scoring, while Smith has looked to establish himself on a new team.
It’s left Monroe averaging 11.3 shots a game, the fewest since his rookie season, when he didn’t have a single play called for him by then-former coach John Kuester.
“That’s probably been the main thing,” Monroe said. “I kind of need the ball to get a rhythm; that’s how I’ve always been. It’s tough, especially when guys have it going. It’s a rough area for me, really.”