Newly hired Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney talks about what attracted him to join Dwane Casey's staff and what he hopes to accomplish in the NBA Summer League. Rod Beard, Detroit News
Las Vegas — A changing of the guard often brings uncertainty and concern.
When the Pistons parted ways with coach Stan Van Gundy this summer, there wasn’t much concern for core players Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson. They were going to have clear roles no matter who the new coach would be.
It was different for big man Henry Ellenson, who is entering his third season, a critical juncture in his young career.
In his first two years, Ellenson was limited to short stints in the playing rotation; when the Pistons hired Dwane Casey last month, Ellenson was unsure what his role would be — or whether there would even be a significant one. That uneasiness was cleared up with one phone call from Casey, who gave Ellenson an instant boost of confidence.
It’s been reinforced in the first few practices heading into the Las Vegas Summer League, with assistant coaches Sean Sweeney and Sidney Lowe working closely with Ellenson.
“It’s been positive. They have a lot of belief in me — which is huge. When you change coaches, you never know,” Ellenson said. “To hear some of the things they’ve been saying has been great. I’m going on my third year and I’m still the youngest guy on the team.
“I’m ready to compete and get that opportunity. I’m excited about this season, and I’m going to put the work in this summer.”
There will be an even bigger focus on Ellenson after Luke Kennard, the Pistons’ first-round pick last season, sustained a left-knee strain Monday, which will sideline him for the duration of the tournament. That leaves Ellenson to develop his leadership with the Summer League roster and shoulder more of the scoring load.
Casey stopped by practice on Thursday and has been impressed from what he’s seen so far from Ellenson. He gave a preview of how they plan to use Ellenson moving forward.
“I’ve seen him work out and I’ll have a better impression after the summer. He’s got to have a next-play mentality. If you miss a shot, he’s got to feel like he can make a mistake and play through it and keep that confidence,” Casey said. “He needs to get that swag back because this is a confidence league and if another team smells that lack of confidence, they’re going to take it.”
The initial indications from Casey and the new coaching staff are Ellenson will have a bigger role next season. It’s just been a case of opportunity, which was cleared when Anthony Tolliver agreed to terms with the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this week.
Ellenson looked to have a niche last season, even after Tolliver was re-signed and looked to be a role player behind Ellenson. Early in the season, though, Ellenson went through some growing pains on the defensive end and Tolliver excelled in a string defending the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis, the Warriors’ Kevin Durant and the Lakers’ Julius Randle.
That seemed to cement the pecking order, with Tolliver moving ahead of Ellenson for the remainder of the season. It was disappointing for Ellenson, but he soldiered through the season, waiting for another opportunity.
“Getting those game opportunities and being able to learn from that, that’s how you get better and get a feel for it,” Ellenson said. “I felt like last year I played well in some opportunities early on, and at the end and maybe it could have been different the whole season.
“I handled it the way I did with that, but what (Casey) did with his bench (in Toronto) last season. It’s been all positive things for me in the summer.”
Ellenson is looking to translate his momentum from the Summer League to training camp — but he’ll have a clearer path in front of him, behind Griffin at power forward, and potentially some minutes as a backup center.
“I feel I’m going to get an opportunity here, a good chance to play. I don’t think (Casey’s) afraid to play his young guys,” Ellenson said. “For me to hear that from the coaches is a confidence builder. I have assistant coaches here giving me confidence and to play the way I do, grab the rebound and go.
“All that stuff is great to hear as a player.”
The biggest area of improvement for Ellenson in the summer is with his shot mechanics and strength. Ellenson had used his guide hand on the top of the ball, which affected the rotation on his shot. He’s spent much of the offseason working on moving that guide hand to the side of the ball, which has helped with a quicker release and better results.
More than that, though, he’s heard the two words that any shooter desires to hear from a coach: Green light.
“It’s been good. I’m excited about the new way we’re going to play: get up and down, push the pace, grab a rebound and go, take the open shot; it’s a green light,” Ellenson said. “It’s been good learning it and getting in a rhythm in it playing here will be nice.
“I always feel like I have a green light. It’s nice to figure out the system. We’ll get easy shots off drive-and-kicks and make the game simple if you draw two (defenders) and kick it out.”
At 6-foot-11, Ellenson said Casey and the new staff want him to use his size advantage and dribbling ability to create more opportunities in the lane and beyond the arc, which will open shots for others as well.
The preview starts Friday in the Summer League when the Pistons take on the Milwaukee Bucks.