Niyo: Pistons looking for improvement from within

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — It’s more than a feeling now. It’s something they can see, too.

So as the Pistons gathered Monday for their annual media day, the positive vibes were more than just platitudes, and the confidence came from more than simply new faces. It was grounded in reality, or in the case of All-Star center Andre Drummond, a virtual reality.

And in a summer full of self-improvement for Stan Van Gundy’s young, upwardly-mobile roster, that’s as good a place to start as anywhere. With Drummond confronting the biggest obstacle to his own personal growth as a player: the dismal free-throw shooting that relegated him to the bench in some of the biggest moments of games late last season, as the Pistons finally made their playoff breakthrough.

Drummond, who signed the richest contract in franchise history this summer, spent much of his summer in California again, working tirelessly at the same Santa Barbara training facility where he’d made big strides a year ago. But also trying something new, utilizing a virtual-reality simulator — created by STriVR Labs, a start-up company founded by a Stanford grad — to help him visualize proper shot mechanics and the good feelings they engender. The Pistons big man now regularly straps on a headset and watches himself making free throws, one after another, in addition to the hundreds he actually shoots on his own.

“It’s more of a mental thing,” Drummond explained Monday. “And with the VR, it’s more of a positive reinforcement, trying to train your mind to think positively all the time. Even though you’re not going to make every shot, you still have that thought process that you’re making the shots. So for me it was really positive.”

Nowhere but up

And for the Pistons, it’s just one of many examples of what Van Gundy, the Pistons’ president and head coach, has spent the last few months stressing to his players. With no player on the roster over the age of 29, and the entire Pistons’ starting five — plus a few key rotational players — returning intact, the improvement from a 44-win team that clawed its way into the playoffs needs to come from within.

“I don’t know how many people have ever had a roster like this,” Van Gundy said. “We don’t have a single guy on our team — not one — that you would say is on the downside of his career. Not one guy. Really all of them are at an age where they can make a step.”

And to a man, they all talked Monday about the steps they took over the summer to do just that.

Stanley Johnson said he learned plenty on the defensive end as a rookie — when to gamble, how to recover and the difficulty in contesting shots without fouling. Mostly, though, he says he learned about “honoring the process,” a nod to the daily grind of professional responsibilities and understanding it’s a 24/7 commitment. So he spent long hours in the gym with Pistons assistant Bob Beyer reworking his jump shot, with a higher release and better form.

Asked for a progress report Monday, he smiled, “It’s gonna go in more.”

Likewise, Tobias Harris, a versatile talent acquired at the trade deadline in February, says he’s in the best shape of his life, and ready to take another step defensively with better lateral quickness.

“We all went back and got into the lab this summer and just were extremely motivated and worked extremely hard,” point guard Reggie Jackson said.

Jackson emerged as a pick-and-roll catalyst and one of the league’s best fourth-quarter scorers in his debut as a full-time starter last season. This year, he’s promising to be a more vocal floor leader for a tight-knit group — “They have true chemistry — it’s not made-up chemistry,” owner Tom Gores said – that held another team-bonding trip out west last month.

“We’re getting better at just getting uncomfortable with each other,” Jackson said.

And getting comfortable with the accountability that comes with the heightened expectations. A quick first-round playoff exit, swept by the eventual champs from Cleveland, provides a staging point for this season.

“They came away with confidence in knowing that they belong,” said Gores, who met with the team Monday to talk about this season’s goals. “I think they’re there now. I don’t think they need another year or two just to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been there.’ They’re looking to go much further.”

Core is formed

How much further will depend on plenty of things, including what looks to be a much-improved bench with the free-agent additions of point guard Ish Smith and power forward Jon Leuer. The players weren’t the only ones working to get better this summer.

And with virtually the entire roster locked up beyond this season – shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the most notable exception – Gores made it clear there’s no hesitation from ownership to spend up to and above the luxury tax threshold.

The Pistons weren’t shying away from talk of a championship Monday. “Why not us?” was Van Gundy’s message in a team meeting, and one the players all echoed afterward.

“And the reason is because there’s a core,” Gores said. "We have something to work with.”

Something else, too, it seems: A team with room to improve that’s willing to put in the work. John_Niyo