Pistons’ Boban could be ready to take center stage

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

It’s one of the old tricks that high school basketball coaches use: find the tallest student in the school and put him on the basketball team. Even if he’s not very skilled, he can strike fear into opposing teams, who wonder who they’re going to defend him.

In the NBA, it’s not quite the same — especially with Boban Marjanovic, it’s not a gimmick or a ploy.

The 7-foot-4 Pistons center is not some tall kid who moonlights as a basketball player.

The challenge has been getting Marjanovic significant playing time behind Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes.

Now, it looks to be Boban’s time.

Baynes more than likely will use his player option and become an unrestricted free agent, opening the door for Marjanovic to get a promotion from the third center to the backup.

That was the plan all along, when the Pistons signed Marjanovic last summer, looking ahead to this offseason and what could happen with Baynes’ departure, shrewdly using their remaining salary-cap space before signing Drummond to a max deal.

But Marjanovic, 28, posted 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 35 games. Those aren’t great numbers, but in only 8.4 minutes per game, that translates to a whopping 23.5 points and 16 rebounds per 36 minutes — or put plainly, more production than even Drummond.

The downside for coach Stan Van Gundy is that Marjanovic may not have the skill set and stamina to play starters’ minutes, but the key is finding the sweet spot, which Van Gundy got a chance to do in the final four games of the regular season, when Marjanovic shined in his opportunity.

“This is a fault of ours that we really didn’t build anything around him, either offensively or defensively,” Van Gundy said last month. “We have to do some defensive things to help him and we’ve got to get him the ball even more offensively, but he was our third center, so we didn’t build enough around him. Certainly we will, going forward.”

Because Baynes was more of a defensive-minded big man and Drummond the offensive option, Marjanovic generally didn’t find much playing time. But when he got his chances, he showed an ability to use his size to his advantage, holding the ball with his huge hands and tossing it into the rim from shorter distances.

Opponents were somewhat helpless to stop him, forced to foul him or give up an easy basket. It became a predictable ploy, as teammates looked for him on many opportunities, when he had a clear mismatch against the Orlando Magic’s Stephen Zimmerman or the Houston Rockets’ Montrezl Harrell.

Marjanovic on a roll

Both Drummond and Baynes remarked about how Marjanovic can sometimes get on a roll in practice, but to see it against other players is still somewhat surprising.

“The guy is an offensive force and he can do more than we had him do. We haven’t had a guy like him so we didn’t do a lot of cutting off the post, so he can pass,” Van Gundy said. “He can create some easy baskets, which we need to get, especially with the way we miss jump shots.”

How to utilize Marjanovic most effectively will be one of the big offseason tasks for Van Gundy and his coaching staff, as they try to dictate matchups instead of react to them. Put plainly, Van Gundy was more worried about Marjanovic’s deficiencies on defense, instead of considering how defenses would play the big man.

“With Boban, we could still use his offense and his size and if you want to downsize (to guard him), good luck. We have to have a way to cover for him on the defensive end,” Van Gundy said. “We have some ideas, but we need some work and study. We’ll get into camp and hopefully try on them. When you have a guy who can make that big an impact on the game offensively and on the boards, you at least have to try some things that allow you to counter what people may do at the other end.

“We weren’t ready to do that this year. Even in the last four games, Orlando went to Aaron Gordon at the (forward) and I took (Marjanovic) out right away, which was a mistake. That was a mistake in game coaching and I didn’t have any confidence that we had a weapon in our arsenal to at least give it a shot.”

Assistant strength coach Louis Thompson did agility drills with Marjanovic all season and the difference is noticeable, but now the onus is on Van Gundy to play Marjanovic more and not use him sparingly, only when games are out of hand.

Or he’ll be just another big-man mannequin.