Auburn Hills — The story started out like trying to convince someone of a Bigfoot sighting or a UFO — equal parts disbelief and sketchy details. It was as if Reggie Jackson was trying to convince himself that it actually happened.
The first few words came out normally, then his eyes got bigger and his voice went up as he tried to describe Avery Bradley’s stellar defensive play against an unnamed teammate in a practice during training camp.
“Avery made an amazing play that I have yet to see in my lifetime until I saw it today,” Jackson began. “I don’t want to describe it because there were victims involved. Just know that he got very personal with somebody — not in a mean way — but he’s always under you.
“It looked like he climbed into somebody’s jersey and took the ball away and gave them a look.”
And just like a Sasquatch, there’s no video — only stories from those who were there.
There is, though, Bradley’s version:
“I stole the ball and kind of looked at him and it was a growl. It was the old-school kind of punking somebody,” Bradley said, matter-of-factly. “That’s my mentality. Once you cross those lines, there are no more friends. That’s what a lot of people respect about me around the league and my teammates respect about me.”
That’s what the Pistons got in Bradley in a July trade with the Celtics for Marcus Morris. When they reached a contract impasse with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they looked at other options — and when Boston was going after Gordon Hayward and needed to shed salary, Bradley became available.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy pounced at the opportunity to add a potential game-changer. Bradley, 26, is one of the premier two-way guards in the league, a two-time All-Defensive Team selection.
In many ways, Bradley already is what the Pistons were hoping Caldwell-Pope could develop into — in a few years.
“He had instant credibility and respect to begin with,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not just what he walks in the door with, but what he’s earned. Already, it’s the way he goes about things and he’s been (in camp) for three weeks and people see how hard he plays.”
At $8.8 million, Bradley is a bargain, but he’s in the last year of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. The task is for Van Gundy to try to get him to sign a long-term deal with the Pistons, for what likely will be upwards of $100 million — in the same range that Caldwell-Pope was seeking.
Bradley shakes off the questions about his long-term plans. He just wants to get through this season and get the Pistons back to respectability.
“The most important thing for me is just going out there and playing basketball. I’m not worrying about (the contract); I’m just worried about trying to make the playoffs and have a successful year as a team,” Bradley said. “Everything else will work itself out after the season.”
Bradley, though, brings a different dynamic than his predecessor. He’s a tenacious defender who gets through screens and in his seven seasons, has put together a respectable resume on both ends of the court.
The Celtics selected him 19th overall in the 2010 draft, after just one year in college at Texas. They brought him along slowly, letting him focus on his strength on defense, until his game picked up on the offensive end. Last season, he averaged 16.3 points and shot 39 percent — numbers that would have been team highs for the Pistons.
More than the stats, what Bradley brings is defensive credibility and swag on defense, something the Pistons have lacked since the Ben Wallace “Goin’ to Work” era more than a decade ago.
Simply talking about defense gets Bradley hyped up, his low, monotonous tone amping up as he beams like a first-grader in a “Show-and-Tell” presentation.
“(Defense) is contagious. Whenever you’re out there, defense is all effort and some technique,” he said. “You don’t have to be athletic to be a good defender; you can be smart and give 100 percent on the defensive end. That’s what coach is trying to get everyone to do, including me.
“It’s a pride thing for me. Whoever I’m going against, even if they’re making shots on me, I’m bringing it every single play. That’s the way I think — and I want everybody to think like that on our team.”
Bradley already has gained his new teammates’ respect for his defensive prowess.
“I call him a terrorist,” center Andre Drummond joked. “It’s great to see somebody so dedicated to defense.”
Paired with Stanley Johnson on the wing early in the preseason, Bradley caused havoc and turned steals into easy transition opportunities. That could be a formidable duo to help the Pistons get back to the postseason — a tantalizing prospect to bring some excitement to the new Little Caesars Arena when the season opens Wednesday.
“I really don’t want to say how good we can be because I don’t want to cap it off. With Avery and me, I’m not sure how many people are just going to score on us all night,” Johnson said. “We have two guys pressuring your best guard and best forward and it’s going to be tough.
“What we have going right now is pretty good.”
High energy level
In a short time, Bradley’s energy and affinity for defense has spread to other teammates. On a team where the effort and defense have been questioned on a game-to-game basis, Bradley is looking to bring a quiet leadership and determination to make that attitude become more consistent.
As the newcomer, Bradley doesn’t want to step on toes, so it’s not always easy to try to tell the veterans what they can do better. For a guy who leads more by example than by his words, it’s an opportunity to make a mark and share some of the leadership mantle.
He shows that as soon as he steps on the court, whether it’s practice or preseason.
“What he does more than anything is his disposition is so good and he has a real effect on the rest of the team,” Van Gundy said. “Everybody teaches technique but a lot of it is that some guys have a tremendous desire to get through screens and a tremendous sense of urgency and other guys use a screen as an excuse. It’s a different mindset.”
If that means showing in practice he can be a defensive unicorn or making a highlight play in practice, it’s a step. Drummond and Jackson, among others, have said watching Bradley’s defense motivates them to want to do better, which would be a huge step.
Although Bradley has instant credibility around the league for his defense, he wasn’t selected for the All-Defensive Team last season, after missing 27 games because of injuries. While others set individual goals for scoring or being an All-Star, Bradley is focused on different accolades.
“First-team All-Defense should be for sure this year. Every year, if it’s up to the players, I should be on the defensive team,” he said. “I prove it each year and I think I can be in the conversation as a defensive player of the year. “I was third in votes (in 2016) and it does go hand-in-hand with your team success — and I should always be in the conversation.”