Auburn Hills — When it comes down to it, rookie guard Michael Gbinije just wants to play. It doesn’t matter where — whether it’s for the Pistons or the Grand Rapids Drive, or maybe in a pick-up game in a sports club.
So when Gbinije gets word from Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy that he’s going to take another trip down to the D-League, he doesn’t take the news as badly as some might think.
“I get excited every time (he tells me), just because I want to play. Whenever Stan tells me that, I might not show it, but in the back of my mind, it’s ‘I finally get to play,’ Gbinije said Monday. “Before, it was half ‘damn’ — but at this point, I just want to play, so it’s 100 percent positive for me.
“I play anywhere I can.”
It’s been hard for Gbinije, 25, to garner playing time with the Pistons, because of an experienced core of wings. Gbinije has played in eight games and has totaled four points and has gone just 1-of-10 from the field.
Then there’s the D-League, where Gbinije had his best game on Saturday, posting 29 points and nine rebounds in the Drive’s win over the Raptors 905. Lauded by Van Gundy for his defense, Gbinije finally had broken out with his best offensive game of his professional career.
It’s been frequent back-and-forth trips for Gbinije, 25, and fellow rookie Henry Ellenson. The pair has become fast friends this year, playing 10 games with the Drive.
“Mike and I have been going through all this together and I know he can always do that,” Ellenson said. “It’s nice to see Mike finally put it all together in one game and have a game like he just did.”
During his other stints with the Drive and his practice time with the Pistons, Gbinije had shown his defensive skills as his strength. Seeing the development Gbinije made over the season was a revelation for Van Gundy, who hasn’t been able to provide the court time Gbinije craves, but can see that time coming if he continues to improve.
“You’re getting playing time and get into a little bit of a rhythm,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve played five games with (the Drive) over time and they’re in a rhythm. Other than that, they’re not playing a whole lot, so it’s hard to go down and play a game every two weeks.
“He’s really good, with a combination of length and quickness. He’s good moving his feet but he has a lot to learn defensively, like anybody does. His defensive instincts are really good, but it’s getting a chance to play and learn stuff.”
More than learning basketball stuff, the trips to Grand Rapids are a chance for Gbinije and Ellenson to bond off the court. Ellenson said he frequently does the driving on the two-hour trip on I-96 because Gbinije sleeps most of the time.
But the two have another unique connection as well, having worked out together before the draft, as they both are represented by Roc Nation.
“We knew each other coming in, so it’s been a blessing working with him,” Gbinije said. “He got me into cats. He has a cat named Ruth and he persuaded me to get a cat and I have cat named Jack Daniels.”
Gbinije said he’s hasn’t been able to reach Ellenson the same way, but they have a good understanding of each other. It’s an odd pairing, as Ellenson just turned 20, but they make it all work, working together and spending time together off the court, just becoming friends.
But the dream of getting more NBA time continues to drive them both.
“Mike’s Mike. There’s no figuring out Mike. He’s a good dude and he works hard and gets his work in every day,” Ellenson said. “He’s not the most talkative (with media) but he is with me. I feel like I know him the best out of anyone here.”
Playing in the D-League isn’t Gbinije’s big dream, but he taking things one step at a time, knowing that he has to work his way into getting Van Gundy’s trust on the court. And if it means doing it at the DeltaPlex in Grand Rapids more often than The Palace of Auburn Hills, he’s all for doing whatever it takes.
“It’s definitely been positive; you get a chance to not only play, but work on things,” Gbinije said. “It’s important to stay in rhythm; since you’re not playing (with the Pistons), you have to find ways to keep your confidence up and work on your game.”
And that might mean more trips down I-96.