New Orleans — During the Orlando Summer League, Pistons general manager Jeff Bower and coach Stan Van Gundy were spectators, watching while associate head coach Bob Beyer guided the Pistons team to the championship game for the second year.
That Pistons team featured Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson, but the Pistons’ brass also had their eyes on another standout.
The player? Dwight Buycks, who played for the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league team.
Now, Buycks is the Pistons’ backup, a far cry from just trying to get a look from someone — anyone — on the small practice court in Orlando. Getting this opportunity with the Pistons seemed unfathomable.
“At that time, it would have been ‘I hope that can be the case,’ ” Buycks told The Detroit News. “Until then, just do what you have to do and let everything take care of itself.”
In the summer, Buycks was a blur on the court, tallying 28 points, five rebound and six assists and playing point guard. At the time, the Mavericks didn’t have a big need at the position, especially after they selected Dennis Smith, Jr. in the first round of the draft.
Smith was going to be their future and the 28-year-old Buycks was filling a space. The Pistons didn’t really have a need, either, with Reggie Jackson coming back healthy, Ish Smith as a capable backup and Langston Galloway as a third option.
When Buycks became available, the Pistons jumped on the opportunity, signing him to a two-way contract to play with the Grand Rapids Drive in the development league.
Buycks battled some injuries in training camp, and Van Gundy didn’t get a good look at Buycks running their system, but he knew what he had seen in summer league. Two weeks ago, Van Gundy admittedly hadn’t seen enough of Buycks’ play to know how well he would fit with the Pistons and what he needed to improve.
“I haven’t had Dwight enough. He wasn’t even involved in training camp enough. I know what we liked about him in the summer and why we signed him: he’s a tough kid and he can penetrate and score and he has some grit to him,” Van Gundy said in late December. “To get down to things I want him to improve on — I’ll be honest — I haven’t seen him.”
Things change quickly in the NBA, though.
Buycks now finds himself firmly in a backup role, after Jackson’s severely sprained ankle sidelined him until at least mid-February. Buycks had 14 points last week against the Miami Heat and bettered it with a career-best 16 points in Saturday’s win over the Houston Rockets.
“I think coaches are always really, really happy for guys like that who have to fight to get an opportunity and then take advantage of that opportunity and play well,” Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy is really happy — and Buycks is very fortunate.
After all, it’s not Buycks’ first rodeo in the pro basketball. He’s played internationally in around Europe and in China and had stints with the Los Angeles Lakers (six games in 2014-15) and Toronto Raptors (14 games in 2013-14).
After two years at Marquette, playing on the same teams with future NBA standouts Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder, Buycks still had dreams of playing in the NBA himself.
But dreams sometimes have roadblocks — and that sometimes means detours.
Showing his skills
Whether it’s the summer league or overseas or Grand Rapids, basketball is just basketball. And Buycks is a basketball player.
It didn’t matter which team he played on in summer league. He just hoped his talent would shine through. He tried to find the best fit, but even with Smith waiting to assume the mantle for the Mavericks, he just played.
“It’s super tough. That’s actually a big deal, who you play with in summer league,” he said. “Certain people play with the wrong team and you’re stuck and can’t do anything about it. That’s a big thing for guys like me, picking the right team that will let you showcase your skills to let other NBA teams see you and know what you’re capable of.”
That showed through for Van Gundy and Bower. They learned from Jackson’s injury last season that having bench depth was valuable. With his experience, Buycks could provide that — or at worst, be a good option in Grand Rapids.
That option has blossomed into a payoff for the Pistons.
“I saw a guy who really attacked and definitely has some toughness to him too,” Van Gundy said last week. “We liked him in summer league and the unfortunate thing is we didn’t have him in the preseason and we would have liked to have played him and seen what he looked like there.
“Four days in, he was down. He’s only played 10 G-League games. It’s really been tough to get a handle on him so under those circumstances, he’s performed pretty well these last couple games.”
Under Buycks’ two-way contract, he can spend 45 games with the Pistons. If he continues to play like he has the last three games, they could easily convert the two-way deal into a minimum contract.
Buycks wasn’t even ready for a long stay; when Jackson first was injured, Buycks brought a suitcase. It turns out he’s going to need some more clothes, but hasn’t had time to make the trek to Grand Rapids to get them.
“I only have a few clothes and jogging suits,” Buycks lamented. “That’s the thing, I don’t have to wear (normal) clothes much. I have more stuff, but the timing’s not right — I don’t have time.”
If he continues to play well, he can buy all new clothes with the bigger contract. He’ll wait on that, though. It’s not just about making a small impression.
If he can take advantage of this opportunity, he can still make a career out of it — and that’s what’s most important to him.
“I know I belong here, but it’s more so about work,” Buycks said. “I’m going to work until get to where I want to be — and stay there.”
Pistons at Pelicans
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Monday, Smoothie King Center, New Orleans
Outlook: The Pistons (21-17) are coming off one of their most impressive wins of the season, topping the Rockets on Saturday. The Pelicans (19-19) have lost three of their last four, including the last two at home.