Auburn Hills — Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a man of few words.
He’s short on talk but big on action. Even his 22 letters in his name are more often shortened to the initials: KCP.
While he can easily take the background behind more talkative teammates Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, Caldwell-Pope doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to playing defense.
In his third season, he’s working to make his offensive game match his on-the-ball defensive prowess, while making many fans forget about the draft-day dilemma of taking him with the No. 8 pick in 2013.
Of the members of that draft class, Caldwell-Pope has played the most games (231), and of the seven players picked ahead of him, he ranks second in total points (2,531), behind only Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (3,457), who was the No. 2 selection.
“We all expected it. Having KCP come in my second year, we built a bond immediately,” Drummond said. “He has this energy that he makes everybody else want to play hard with him, too. Just watching him each and every night go out and do the same thing, you know exactly what you’re getting from him.”
During Caldwell-Pope’s first two seasons, it wasn’t clear what the Pistons had gotten. While fans had clamored for Michigan’s Trey Burke, Caldwell-Pope played all but two games in his first two years, honing his game as a defensive stalwart and steadily improving his 3-point shooting, from 32 percent as a rookie to 35 percent last year.
Although that number has dipped a bit this year, his overall shooting has improved from 40 percent to 42 percent this year. He’s coach Stan Van Gundy’s go-to defender, whether it’s Golden State’s All-Star backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry or Washington’s John Wall.
KCP can guard them all.
“That’s such a big part of his game, the defensive end. With the energy he brings, it becomes very contagious and other guys pick up on that,” assistant coach Bob Beyer said. “When you know you can put him on the opposition’s best perimeter player, that’s going to help our team and individual matchups for us.
“Going into game plans, he rarely misses a defensive assignment, he knows what the game plan is and he’s a lot more cerebral player this year than what he was a year ago — and it shows in his play.”
Caldwell-Pope has become one of the Pistons’ most valuable players — ranking fourth in minutes per game (36.7) — often the only starter on the floor with the reserve group, while continuing to guard the best offensive player.
As he’s gained more experience, he’s refined his defensive game and adjusted to guarding the best scorers in the game. At the same time, Caldwell-Pope improved his scoring, from 5.9 points as a rookie, to 12.7 last year and 14.8 this season.
“He’s now seen all the situations, so he can react to things better at both ends of the floor. He’s not surprised by something the offense is doing against him or something that the defense does against him,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He’s not surprised as much, which allows him to be more solid and he’s a very consistent energy guy.
“That helps him and every night he’s a guy who’s going to defend, run up and down the floor, move without the ball — things you can control.”
While much of the attention goes to Drummond, who was a first-time All-Star, and Jackson, Caldwell-Pope is carving his niche as the staunch defender that prompted then-team president Joe Dumars to bypass local favorite Burke, who was the national player of the year and led Michigan to the national title game.
In hindsight, it’s looking like that gamble wasn’t much of a gamble at all.
During a recent stretch, he scored at least 20 points in four of five games and had a career-best eight assists in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. All the while, he’s maintained his smothering defense, in chasing around some of the best shooters in the game. Just before the All-Star game, he missed four games after a core muscle injury — the Pistons went 1-3 during that stretch.
“There’s not many guys doing that in the league now, defending,” said rookie Stanley Johnson, whose locker is next to Caldwell-Pope’s. “With his offense improving as it is and our team being better, you could see KCP being one of the premier shooting guards in the league.”
Along with Drummond, Caldwell-Pope is one of the longest-tenured Pistons. And if they finish out the last stretch of the season on a high, they’ll make the playoffs for the first time.
That team success coincides with their individual achievements.
“He’s gotten better each year and this year, he’s really had more responsibility. He has a role to defend the best guard each night. He’s taken the challenge and now he’s known around the league for being one of the better defenders in the league,” Drummond said. “He’s embraced his role and not only does he get it on the defensive end; when it’s time to hit a big shot, we can count on him to make the shot. He’s grown.”
‘Sky’s the limit’
Caldwell-Pope recently turned 23 and his offensive game continues to develop. Fans bemoan his shot selection and up-and-down 3-point shooting, but sometimes underestimate his defense. As he continues to develop, the fit with the Pistons is becoming more apparent. The core is around the same age and he has become more vocal, when necessary, as he grows with his new teammates.
Although he might not be as vocal in postgame media sessions, he’s gotten comfortable with the players. And when he talks, his teammates heed his words.
“It’s been fun for me — I’ve known him the longest on this team. It’s fun to see his growth and watch him mature as a player. The sky’s the limit for him,” Drummond said. “He’s going to be defensive player of the year.
“If you really check the numbers with what he’s done with the better guards in the league, it’s tough not to notice what he’s done.”
Reviewing the 2013 NBA Draft
1. Anthony Bennett, Cavs: After not developing in Cleveland, he’s played for three teams in three years and has spent most of this season in the D-League, fighting the label as worst No. 1 pick ever.
2. Victor Oladipo, Magic: He’s lived up to his potential, averaging 15.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his career.
3. Otto Porter, Wizards: He’s having his best season, averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds, and getting consistent minutes.
4. Cody Zeller, Hornets: On a maturing Hornets squad, he’s finding a niche after making the move from power forward to center, posting 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.
5. Alex Len, Suns: A part-time starter, Len (8.9 points, 7.4 rebounds) is making a mark but the Suns are a long way from being a contender.
6. Nerlens Noel, Pelicans: After missing his rookie season, Noel is starting to fit in following the trade to the 76ers, who have a logjam of big men.
7. Ben McLemore, Kings: He’s getting a chance to play more, but the constant drama surrounding the Kings has stunted his growth.
8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Pistons: He’s a developing perimeter defender and fits well with the Pistons’ core in his role. He’ll get a big payday with his next contract.
9. Trey Burke, Timberwolves: A draft-day trade to the Utah Jazz gave him a chance, but he’s been up and down, moving from the starting lineup to the bench.