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Niyo: Andre Drummond's progress comes at a price

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy was busy criticizing himself Monday night. And a day later, he hadn't changed his mind.

Not about the in-game strategy, and certainly not the long-range one, either.

Andre Drummond was finally finding a rhythm in the fourth quarter of Monday's 107-93 loss to the Orlando Magic. In a span of a few minutes, he'd bulled his way for a layup, spun away from Nikola Vucevic for a dunk — drawing a foul on Channing Frye as he did — and then completed another three-point play with a nifty, 6-foot hook in the lane.

But with an eight-point deficit and 4:07 to play, Van Gundy decided to pull the 7-footer in favor of another perimeter shooter, Caron Butler, a decision he second-guessed after the game.

"He was playing really well," Van Gundy said Tuesday, when asked again about Drummond. "That was the best he had played all night. He was being active, he was blocking shots. Looking back at it after the game, he should've stayed in the game."

Not that it'd have made much of a difference, most likely. And not that he'd shown much more than flashes of that form that night — or any other this season, really.

Drummond's inconsistent play has been among the more vexing problems in a frustrating start to the season for Van Gundy and the Pistons, now 3-8 and tied for the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday's games.

The third-year center's revamped role in the offense — emphasizing a post-up game that even Drummond admits is "a work in progress" — continues to draw mixed reviews, and perhaps sends mixed messages. Is playing Drummond with his back to the basket really the Pistons' best bet for success right now?

"I don't really think it's a project," Van Gundy said. "I think if we get him the ball at the spots where he can be effective and he makes solid, fundamental moves, he'll be successful and help us win."

What's the rush?

But making those solid, fundamental moves still looks like a chore for Drummond. Too often he finds himself rushing things, and yet a limited repertoire of moves almost forces him to act quickly — now or never, it seems — when teammates feed him in the post.

"I'm not used to it," Drummond said. "But I've worked hard to really get comfortable with it through the summer."

And Tuesday after practice, he was busy watching video of Monday night's performance, to see both what went wrong early and then what went right in the end.

"The skills are coming," Van Gundy said. "It's the mentality of being a low-post guy and being in games that he needs to develop."

But at what cost? That's a fair question for a team that's desperately in need of some positive reinforcement, if nothing else.

Van Gundy on Tuesday was talking about that, too, noting the differences between this team and the one that started out 3-8 in Miami in his first year as a head coach. That Heat team in 2003-04 rallied late to finish with 42 wins and a berth in the conference semifinals. But this Pistons team has just one player on the roster — Joel Anthony — with a winning record as an NBA player.

"Some of 'em have never been on a good team," Van Gundy noted. "So that's a hard thing when that's all you know, and that's all you expect. And that's what we're trying to overcome."

Early struggles

Drummond's one of those young players trying to overcome the recent past. At 21, he's already played for four different head coaches and lost 114 games.

And yet he's also been anointed as the franchise cornerstone, making him the center of attention long before he's ready to be just that. At least in the textbook sense, as his 41.4-percent field-goal shooting this season would suggest.

"I'm gonna miss shots," Drummond said. "So for somebody to expect me to shoot 100 percent every night, that's crazy."

No doubt. But he's shooting just 50 percent from 5 feet and in this season, and he's 3-for-19 on shots between 5 and 9 feet from the basket. So it'd be crazy to think running the offense through Drummond in the post right now is anything but a losing proposition some nights.

Still, there's the long view to think about. Greg Monroe remains the Pistons' best player, both in the post and on the roster. Yet based on the way last summer went, it seems unlikely he'll still be in a Pistons uniform after this season.

And if Drummond is the big man this franchise is going to be built around, and if there's any hope he'll become the kind of player Dwight Howard was for Van Gundy's best teams in Orlando, he's going to have learn sooner or later. And perhaps sooner rather than later.

But at the moment it's hard not to consider Drummond's own words when I asked him what the key to his finishing touch was Monday night.

"Instead of rushing myself," he told me, "I kind of just took my time."