John Loyer on Andre Drummond: 'He's a good guy, loves basketball, wants to get better. Just scratched the surface and the surface is pretty good.' (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Auburn Hills -- A distinctive but lightly cracking voice wanted approval from the veteran holding court across the Pistons’ locker room.
“Mr. Billups,” said Pistons center Andre Drummond, nattily attired in a tailored suit and tie, an ensemble Drummond doesn’t sport at every game but is becoming more common as time goes on. “I’m getting my grown and sexy on.”
Billups, some 17 years Drummond’s senior, was equally amused by Drummond’s style and his willingness to open himself up to ribbing. The veteran guard took the bait.
“I see the ‘grown,’ don’t know about the ‘sexy,’” to which Drummond unleashed a smile that grew after the Pistons’ 111-95 win over the Brooklyn Nets, where Drummond grabbed 22 rebounds, thereby earning the “grown” title in Billups’ eyes.
“Dre is just so young. I went through so much more than he did. He’s right there on the edge,” Billups said. “But now that the league and the world kind of knows about him, they’re gonna expect him to get better.”
What Billups and the rest of the NBA is noticing is a starlike growth from a 20-year-old. His combination of speed, quickness and eye-popping athleticism is matched only by a youthful enthusiasm, and production nobody saw coming.
Drummond is single-handedly making an underwhelming and borderline-controversial Pistons season easier to bear.
With every blocked shot and uncatchable alley-oop that finds its way to Drummond’s massive palms, it’s becoming more unfathomable to realize Drummond slipped all the way to the ninth spot in the 2012 NBA draft, as the Pistons were viewed as a team taking a risk on a kid who had pre-draft doubts about his “desire.”
It seems laughable now.
“It took about 30 seconds, with Andre, to tell that he’s special and that’s even before we played basketball,” said Pistons interim coach John Loyer, who was on Lawrence Frank’s staff when Drummond was drafted, making him the only coach who has seen Drummond every day since.
“He’s vibrant. Describe Andre? He’s a good guy, loves basketball, wants to get better. Just scratched the surface and the surface is pretty good.”
As Drummond strolled out of the Pistons’ locker room and into the cold Detroit night, one step closer to superstardom, it was a reminder that for all the things gone wrong, perhaps he represents the biggest thing that has gone the franchise’s way over the last few years.
A glimmer of hope.
This weekend in New Orleans, Drummond will make his introduction on the biggest stage in his career to date, the Rising Stars Challenge, a game that features the best first- and second-year players the NBA has to offer.
Considering he missed last year’s game with a back injury he suffered on Super Bowl Sunday, it’s still a novelty. Drummond still attended the festivities,
“Not being able to play last year was definitely tough,” Drummond said. “This year, it’ll be fun for me. Getting to experience the real All-Star experience.”
The closest he got was sitting in the front row on All-Star Saturday, alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. On the surface, it certainly looked like he didn’t belong with the trio but perhaps there was a bit of clairvoyance in the situation.
“I used that experience, picking their brains during the dunk contest,” Drummond said. “In the back of their heads they all kind of know who I am.”
The best advice he received was from James, who can relate to having a man-size body at a boyish age.
“LeBron told me just play the game, don’t try to be somebody you’re not,” Drummond said. “That’s the worst part of being a young player, trying to be somebody you’re not. When I first got to the league, I was just worried about what position I was gonna play or what I’m gonna do to contribute to the team.”
He answered those early questions resoundingly and definitively, as Drummond’s leap from surprising rookie to double-double machine made him a candidate to play in the big boy showcase, Sunday’s All-Star Game.
His 13.1 points, 13 rebounds and 1.9 blocks were better than players selected in front of him (Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert) but because they play on winning teams while Drummond is on a squad still trying to find its way, the oversight was a less-than-egregious offense.
“Was I a little disappointed? Yeah, absolutely,” Drummond said. “But I have to keep plugging, I can’t dwell on it. I just want to be a part of it. Hopefully, I’ll be a part of it next year.”
At 20 years and 6 months, Drummond would have been the fourth-youngest All-Star in NBA history, sandwiched between Kobe Bryant, James and Magic Johnson, who made it slightly younger than Drummond, and Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal, who were a little older.
The commonality among those players? All except Garnett have won multiple championships, all except Thomas have won a regular-season Most Valuable Player award and all are either in or locks for the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“He’s at a point where there’s not many great big men,” said former Piston Grant Hill, now an analyst at NBA TV and TNT. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best in the NBA. The key is to continue to work hard and not be satisfied. I think the sky’s the limit. He’s becoming more and more polished offensively. He’s got great years in front of him. You can build a team around him.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered perhaps the most telling praise of Drummond: a self-awareness that is absent in most 20-year-olds who achieve or are at least on the road to a certain stature.
“He knows what his game is, and it’s really important to know what your strengths are,” said Popovich, a four-time championship coach. “He’s relentless and really committed to being a great rebounder. And he does that night after night. That’s the first thing you notice and the foremost thing in how he plays.”
Aside from his size, the most telling physical attribute on the 6-foot-10, 270-pound Drummond is his wide smile.
Laughs when he steps out of bounds after grabbing a rebound Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, looking like a wide receiver trying to tiptoe along the sideline after making a catch.
Laughs when picking up a technical foul for speaking his mind, just a little too much for veteran official Joey Crawford’s liking, as the two had an almost jovial conversation 30 seconds later.
Laughs when a 90-foot fling came up a few feet short to end the third quarter.
But as evidenced by the aforementioned six young All-Stars who had the high-wattage smiles and high-volume games, Drummond is in what Hill calls a grace period, when the expectations haven’t yet begun to pile up — in the form of often-unfair criticism.
“He’ll become an All-Star. And even then, there’s a grace period,” Hill said. “Then you got to put up or shut up. With becoming that great player, there’s more pressure. At 20, you’re not expected to be ‘that guy.’”
Hill felt it firsthand, as a member of the Pistons trying to rebuild after the Bad Boys era. Then, after recovering from a series of ankle and foot injuries years later, he played with an athletic big man with unlimited potential: Dwight Howard.
“By year three, you see he blossomed into an All-Star, Olympic team,” Hill said. “Everyone loved him and then the team plateaued and then the whole situation with him leaving. You see it with LeBron, and he got over that hurdle. It’s not good enough to be a star.”
Hill and Billups agree, this is the best time for a growing star. As Billups says, he’ll take more satisfaction in personal statistics when they come in the context of winning.
“He’s getting a lot better. Athletically, he’s off the charts,” Billups said. “Mentally, thinking about the game, he has a long way to go, but he’s come a long way already. Once you get there, it’s tough to stay there. There’s a lot that comes with being an All-Star. He’ll be able to handle it.”
For the present, though, being in the pool as a candidate for the next Olympic Games and a likely future All-Star is good enough — along with the respect from his peers.
“It’s the little things,” Drummond said. “Guys approach me after games, like for the first time we played Miami, LeBron shook my hand, that’s never happened before. That said to me, these guys really know who I am now.”