Auburn Hills — When the Pistons signed big man Jon Leuer in free agency, the notion was he’d help them most on offense.
After shooting 38 percent on 3-pointers last season, the 6-foot-10 forward has a rare mix of post and perimeter skills the Pistons coveted. At Wisconsin, Leuer provided deceptive range and athleticism for his size, averaging 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds his senior season.
“Since he came into the league in Milwaukee (in 2011) and I was coaching in Orlando, there have been three or four times over the years wherever I was, where we were making efforts to try to get him,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised, but he is playing well, with his versatility and his intelligence.
“The one thing I would say I’m surprised at is he’s a lot better defensively than I thought. I thought he was just maybe average but he has a chance to be a lot better than that.”
And that’s what Van Gundy said was missing from the roster last season — the ability to guard some of the bigger power forwards and get out and guard the more versatile ones on the perimeter. Anthony Tolliver and Tobias Harris weren’t quite as tall and didn’t do enough to bother shots on defense.
Now, Van Gundy has another answer, along with rookie Henry Ellenson. It gives him the option of using Leuer as the center in a small lineup or going bigger with him alongside Andre Drummond or Aron Baynes.
It looks to be an upgrade over Tolliver in terms of size, but if Leuer’s footwork is as good as early returns show, it could be a bigger find.
“Being a big guy, people expect you to not be as mobile,” Leuer said. “I’ve always felt like I’m pretty mobile and can move my feet well and in my sixth year, I know where I’m supposed to be in any situation. That’s half the battle: being in the right spot and knowing where to be.”
Leuer reached the playoffs three times with the Grizzlies, but hasn’t won a series. But he and the Pistons are looking to end that streak this season.
And for Leuer, it could mean some time defending Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who hurt the Pistons last season. The early focus on footwork and guarding on the perimeter, especially this early in training camp, is critical.
“That’s a very important part of the game,” Leuer said. “Your offense on given nights can be up and down but defense is your constant. You can always control how you play defensively. Some nights, shots don’t go in but that’s been a point of emphasis from Day 1 — every night we have to bring it on the defensive end.”
Van Gundy is excited about the possibilities that having Leuer can present on both ends of the floor. He can finally match up against some of the more versatile power forwards in the league, but also can have a stable of skilled bigs who can switch on pick-and-rolls and not have a drop-off in their defense.
“I don’t mind being small at times because we can create mismatches on the other end,” Van Gundy said. “It’s awfully hard for those guys to guard Tobias. The better guys become very difficult and you at least want to have an option to go to. It’ll be important for us.”