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Wojo: For Pistons’ next step, Drummond must be big

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Pistons big man Andre Drummond didn’t always believe in himself as a basketball player. Confidence isn’t an issue anymore, however.

Auburn Hills — He’s been here a while, longer than any teammates, longer than the staff and front office. It’s a place he never thought he’d be, the pivotal pillar of a team, one of the best in the NBA at his position.

You look at Andre Drummond and see a 6-folot-11 terror, a rare imposing presence in a league full of swift guards and smooth-shooting wings.

You look again and see a 23-year-old guy who laughs as he pulls a broken brace out of his teeth and holds up the offending piece of wire. Listen closely and you hear a guy once cut from his seventh-grade basketball team because he was awkward and unmotivated, and even now is still trying to fit into his body and his role.

The fifth-year Pistons center is likable and laid back, traits that once conflicted with his professional goals. Now armed with a $130 million contract and the complete backing of owner Tom Gores, Drummond bears more responsibility than he ever has, on a young Pistons team with lots of good pieces, but only one centerpiece.

“I think right now I’m at a point in my career, I feel stable for once,” Drummond said as the Pistons prepared to open the season tonight on the road against the Raptors. “I feel like I’m in the right place, not all over the place trying to do a million different things. I know exactly what I need to do, and I know what I want to do.”

Drummond has been distracted before, by turmoil in the organization, by the endless shuffling of teammates. And yes, he has been shaken by his renowned flaw. When you have a career free-throw percentage of 38, worst in NBA history, it has a way of defining a player — except that Drummond has defied definitions before.

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He has tried virtually everything — and everything virtual, too — and his stroke is sound enough that he makes plenty of free throws during practice. He’s convinced it’s mental, which is why he hasn’t adopted a more-radical approach, such as shooting under-handed. He began using a virtual-reality headset that allows him to visual successful shots and he says he’s sticking with it.

Drummond was 6-for-17 in exhibitions, but coaches and teammates see a difference, evident in other ways. The guy they call their “big teddy bear” is bringing more defensive effort, although he still has a way to go. He’s bringing more leadership, not because he was anointed by the five-year contract, but because he finally, fully sees the possibilities.

“I think he’s a guy that’s consciously trying to not just play the game, but be more aware of the impact he has on his teammates and everybody else,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But he’s still trying to establish the habits of playing with that energy and intensity all the time. Andre is genuinely a very good person, somebody who likes to be out around people and have fun, and that’s great. But you gotta get your rest, gotta eat right, gotta take care of yourself. He really wants to be a leader, and I’ve told him that’s where he needs to lead. I don’t think he’s been at that place until now, of really trying to be more serious with his work.”

‘I didn’t see it, but he saw it’

The potential is so great, even Drummond recognizes it, not as easy for him as you’d think. As Van Gundy has altered the roster, replacing veterans with more young guys, Drummond has risen to the top in seniority, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope one year behind. With Reggie Jackson sidelined for several weeks, Drummond’s leadership transformation will have to be accelerated, even though, incredibly, he’s younger than 24-year-old rookie Michael Gbinjie.

Drummond made the All-Star team for the first time last season and led the NBA in rebounding (14.8 average). He averaged 16.2 points and shot 52 percent, and is trying to hone his footwork and jump hook. Those are the technical, tactical aspects.

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But to grow on the floor, Drummond has had to mature off the floor, and the process is ongoing. He lived with his mother, Christine Cameron, until this year, and she’s still in the area, a guiding force in his life. Drummond also has developed a close relationship with Gores, and they text and talk all the time.

“(Gores) has this vibe and aura about him that you just don’t want to let him down,” Drummond said. “And he believed in me. I never had that feeling in myself, other than from my mother and my sister. The night they drafted me, I could see it in his eyes that he believed I could really be a factor.

“I didn’t see it, but he saw it.”

Wait, wait. Drummond — highly touted recruit who went to Connecticut for one season and landed with the Pistons as the No. 9 overall pick in 2012 — didn’t see the possibilities?

He shakes his head and recounts how his physical coordination betrayed him as a youngster — he indeed was cut from his middle school team. He didn’t really care because he knew he wasn’t good and figured he’d never be good. When your body is bigger than your dreams, it takes a while to envision things.

“If no one else believed I could be good, why would I believe it?” Drummond said. “Self-doubt is huge at a young age. I always had friends, family members, people saying, ‘You’re big and tall, just enjoy the game while you can and start thinking about a regular job.’ People said I was terrible, and it stuck with me. After eighth grade, I had a different mindset and I worked at it like a dog, sleepless nights, going to the gym to shoot. Over time something just clicked. I became coordinated out of nowhere, it was crazy.”

‘It’s Andre making a step’

Drummond laughed, something he does readily. Early in his career, his easy-going, soft-spoken manner made some question his commitment. He slipped in the draft partly because of a perception he didn’t have a strong work ethic, which he pointedly disputed, then vowed to address.

He suffered a stress fracture in his back and missed 22 games his rookie season, and the Pistons finished 29-53, then 29-53 again. Drummond would get lost as systems kept changing, and the Pistons went 32-50 in Van Gundy’s first season. But Van Gundy was given the power to fix the culture, and the Pistons were 44-38 and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

The center and the coach have gotten frustrated at times, and it wasn’t a good look when Drummond displayed irritation when pulled in fourth quarters because opponents opted for the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. A slight NBA rule revision — intentional foul penalties extended to the final two minutes of each quarter — doesn’t change the fact Drummond has to get better to be a viable force late in games.

But, Van Gundy isn’t harping on it, and Drummond says he isn’t obsessing about it.

Free throws have been the biggest issue with Andre Drummond. Coach Stan Van Gundy expects progress on that front in 2016-17.

“I think his body language has been a lot better, not just with the free throws, but everything else,” Van Gundy said. “It’s the adage — you can’t let what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can do. So what he’s gotta do is dominate around the basket all the time — rebounds, offensively, defensively. If there was only one thing that would get us to rise up defensively, it’s Andre making a step.”

He’s committed to taking it, although it’s never come naturally for Drummond. Off the floor, it’s easier, and he’s a ring-leader of sorts. Practically the entire team spent several days in Malibu this past summer working out together at Drummond’s behest, hanging out with the owner. They rave about the bonding experience, which could be vital for a team with virtually every player on the roster 28 or younger, primed to grow together.

Players often gather at Drummond’s house for card games or video games, and organize bowling and paintball outings. He’s the guy in the locker room who pulls up a funny video on his phone and shows it to teammates.

‘I’m the coolest guy’

Drummond isn’t outspoken, but he doesn’t shy away from much. A couple years ago, he popped up on TMZ a few times when actress Jennette McCurdy made unflattering comments about their brief relationship. It was a cheap shot and Drummond learned from it. He isn’t quite as visible these days, but he’s not altering his personality, just adjusting his priorities.

“I can’t change the way people look at me,” Drummond said. “When you see me on the floor, you get one person. You can’t be a nice guy playing basketball. Off the floor, I don’t brush anybody off. I go out of my way to make people feel comfortable. I’m the coolest guy to be around.”

He smiles, and the braces shine. From his early struggles as a player, to the early woes with the Pistons, Drummond has seen it all, or at least enough to know where he wants to be. He committed on the dotted line with the contract, and in other ways too. One of his favorite charities is Special Olympics, and last week he spent an evening in the Pistons practice facility coaching more than 100 Special Olympics athletes. He said he’d also like to start a mentoring program with inner-city schools.

Gores and the Pistons have invested heavily in Drummond, and make no mistake, having a rare dominant center can be a difference-maker in the NBA. The Pistons should be better this season, but much depends on Drummond’s development. He’s determined to return the investment, although he knows he has to do it, not just say it. He enjoys a unique relationship with the owner, and on the growing question of whether the Pistons should move downtown, Drummond grins and says, “That’d be huge.”

He has stability and comfort, and it finally feels right to put down roots. It also feels right to grow them. He said he didn’t splurge on anything after signing the big contract because it’s not like he won the lottery. He expected it, and earned it.

“I want to let everybody know I’m here for the long haul, not just as a basketball player,” Drummond said. “I’m very thankful and honored, and the sum of money obviously is huge. But I still have more work to do. I can’t lose sight of that.”

The sights are set, the goals are clear. For the Pistons to keep rising, they need Drummond to show the way, even as he still finds his way.

Andre Drummond on ...

Tom Gores: "The night they drafted me, I could see it in his eyes that he believed I could really be a factor. I didn’t see it, but he saw it.”

Life away from basketball: "Off the floor, I don’t brush anybody off. I go out of my way to make people feel comfortable. I’m the coolest guy to be around.”

His future: “I want to let everybody know I’m here for the long haul, not just as a basketball player."

Pistons possibly moving downtown: “That’d be huge."