Charlotte, N.C. — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sat at his locker and grinned when he was asked the familiar question for the umpteenth time this season.
He always shies away from talk about contracts or the upcoming summer, when he’ll become a restricted free agent. His agents and the Pistons were unable to reach an agreement on a contract terms last month, paving the way for a lucrative contract extension this summer, whether he stays or goes to another team.
But after a stuffed stat line of 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in Tuesday night’s win over the Charlotte Hornets, Caldwell-Pope got the all-too-familiar line of questioning again.
“I’m just trying to do more than score the ball, trying to get rebounds on the defensive end and try to get my teammates involved,” he said. “If they keep putting the ball in my hands, I’m going to keep making plays and not be selfish.”
Unlike his first three years, Caldwell-Pope is seeing the ball in his hands more, especially with point guard Reggie Jackson out for the first quarter of this season. Regarded mostly as a defensive specialist, Caldwell-Pope is having his best shooting season — and not because he’s demanding the ball or trying to put up more shots in a contract year.
In fact, it’s at the behest of coach Stan Van Gundy, who is searching under every stone to try to generate more offense, as well as improved team defense during the Pistons’ bumpy start to the season, as they hover around .500 until Jackson returns.
Van Gundy has admitted that they don’t draw up many offensive plays for Caldwell-Pope, but things have changed in recent weeks, with him being more involved in pick-and-roll plays and shooting a career-best 38 percent on 3-pointers.
“We didn’t have a conversation; he just mentioned to me that we were going to run a couple new plays for me to get into more pick-and-rolls and it’s just been flowing like that,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’ve been making plays out of it. Two or three plays is becoming five or six plays now.”
His work in the offseason has paid off so far with the improved shooting beyond the arc and he’s been getting others involved as well, improving his assist total to 2.9, another career high. He’s managed to do it with less playing time, as Van Gundy has been able to shave almost four minutes off his elevated 36.7 minutes from last season.
Caldwell-Pope did it again Tuesday, finding his groove from outside with four 3-pointers and padding the stat line with good all-around effort. Van Gundy was most impressed with the rebounds, which has become a focal point, especially after leading rebounder Andre Drummond was ejected in the second quarter Tuesday.
“It was good to see him on the glass. That’s one thing he really hasn’t done a lot of in his career,” Van Gundy said. “We need our guards on the boards. The assists have been coming for him. Partially (because) he’s gotten more opportunities because we put the ball in his hands, but he’s making good plays.
“He’s giving us another option offensively which is good.”
So far, Van Gundy’s bet on Caldwell-Pope’s improving offense has paid off and gave them their second road win this season, starting off the tough three-game streak against playoff teams — including the Celtics on Wednesday night and Hawks on Friday — with a big confidence boost.
At one of the critical offensive positions on the floor, the Pistons will have to make a decision about whether Caldwell-Pope is their long-term answer. But the choice isn’t just about offensive production: his ability to guard both backcourt positions and to add double-digit scoring might trump the yearning for a knock-down scorer with presumably lesser defensive skills.
If Caldwell-Pope continues this season as he’s begun, it could make the contract negotiations more interesting. Some projections have Caldwell-Pope’s value at upwards of $18 million per season. Whether the Pistons will be willing to pay that much is unclear.
But Caldwell-Pope’s offensive improvement is very clear, especially to Van Gundy.
“When the ball is in my hands, he’s seeing that I’m just making plays. I’m not being selfish; I’m just making the simple play,” Caldwell-Pope said. “As the game keeps going, he sees that. That’s his call.
“It’s all about what he sees and the progress I’m making on offense. My game has progressed every year, so I’m only going to get better. I just have to keep working.”