Beard: Injuries threaten Pistons' promising season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The NBA regular season begins in just over a week and after an encouraging summer, the Pistons find themselves with as many question marks as answers. They were many experts’ — and my — chic pick to make a move, getting as high as the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams.

Compounding the news of Reggie Jackson’s tendinitis injury that will keep him out 10-20 games of the regular season, mild knee tendinitis also kept Marcus Morris out of the last two exhibition games.

Add to the mix that Aron Baynes missed Saturday’s 97-76 win over the 76ers because of back spasms and there’s renewed concern about what the Pistons’ prospects might be in the East. It’s unclear whether Morris’ or Baynes’ issues might stretch into the regular season, but the outlook isn’t quite so rosy if the Pistons will be a bit shorthanded on Oct. 26 in Toronto.

They’ve won their last two exhibition games with a tightened roster, but they’ve beaten the Hawks and 76ers — and face it, it is the preseason. Things have gotten a little cloudier for coach Stan Van Gundy but could perk up in the next week or so.

The Monday Drive takes a look at some lingering concerns as the preseason winds down:

1.No worries on Ish: There was some concern after the first two games that Ish Smith would have some trouble meshing with the starting group. In the last two exhibition outings, though, he’s averaging 14 points, five rebounds and seven assists, with no turnovers. The scoring isn’t exactly at a Jackson level, but it’ll suffice. Those numbers are right around what Smith posted in 50 starts with the 76ers last season.

2. And after Ish…: Neither Ray McCallum Jr. nor Lorenzo Brown seems to be charging to the forefront to take the final roster spot as the third point guard — or backup until Jackson gets back — with their play. Van Gundy has been alternating them in each of the first four games and it’s not clear how much either will play in the last two games. Van Gundy has said it’s not a big issue, but he’ll use their performances in practice as a guide.

3. Harris picking it up: Tobias Harris looks to be ready for the regular season, posting 18 points in each of the last two games, including 2-of-3 on 3-pointers on Saturday night. He was getting comfortable in the second half of last season, but as he improves his defense and becomes an integral part of the offense, he’ll find his shot and give defenders fits, especially when he’s matched with bigger, slower power forwards.

4. Big bank Hank: Rookie Henry Ellenson got his first start on Saturday with Morris out. Ellenson had been working his way to more playing time with other rotation players, but made the move to the starting group, getting in Van Gundy’s good graces with his consistent shooting and growing grasp of the game. He had eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in 18 minutes.

5. Gbinije getting gbetter (sic): Rookie Michael Gbinije has been impressive in practices, as Van Gundy noted he was the best wing in practice in the past week. It continued Saturday, with Gbinije getting his first preseason playing time, contributing 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes. More impressive was Gbinije’s hitting 3-of-4 on 3-pointers.

6. On the wings: Van Gundy told reporters following Sunday that Gbinije being in the mix for playing time was conceivable. That’s either a heaping helping of praise for Gbinije or a commentary on how Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard are playing. Van Gundy likes Gbinije’s defense, but the offense will take a while to catch up. It’s one of the few possible surprises in an otherwise predictable preseason.

7. Free throws aren’t free: Andre Drummond was 0-of-4 from the free-throw line on Saturday, dropping his preseason total to 2-of-10. It’s getting to be a big enough sample size to guess that the offseason tweaks aren’t having an impact yet. But how much will that impact whether Van Gundy can play late in second halves during the regular season, when games are on the line?

8. Big Boban: With Baynes out, Boban Marjanovic had his best outing of the preseason, posting nine points, five rebounds and two steals in 18 minutes against the Sixers. Marjanovic could be the best third center in the league, a dependable go-to two-way player if Drummond gets into foul trouble and things go astray. He’s had back-to-back good games, which lets the other two centers be more aggressive.

9. The middle half: For the second straight game, the Pistons have taken control of the game in the second and third quarters, contributing to the win. On Saturday, they outscored the 76ers, 24-17, in the second and 26-19, in the third, to push their lead to 20, following a six-point advantage in the opening period. It’ll certainly make for a few more wins if they can take control earlier rather than having to make a push in the fourth.

10. Playing time: Because of the lopsided score in the second half, the Pistons were able to get some minutes for other two camp players, Nikola Jovanovic and Trey Freeman. Jovanovic was scoreless in four minutes but Freeman was 0-of-1 from the field, split a pair of free throws and added two assists in four minutes. Playing time is tough to come by, but they earned it in the blowout. @detnewsRodBeard