Pistons rookie Zach Lofton bounced around in college but is looking to stick in the NBA. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — In the Pistons’ locker room, the veterans value their space, often taking two lockers to store their extra clothes and gear.
Not far from Blake Griffin’s and Andre Drummond’s is rookie Zach Lofton’s locker.
The placement is by design, to give the young player some veterans to guide and mentor him. It’s an extra lifeline to make sure that Lofton, 25, doesn’t fall through the cracks or potentially give in to the temptations off the court that can derail the talent that Lofton flashes when he has the ball in his hands.
There was the flash of seven points in Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, when he had a drive through the lane for a highlight-worthy dunk. There was the flash of a solid 21-point performance against the Lakers in Summer League, where Lofton averaged 10.8 points.
On the other side, there are the question marks about Lofton’s commitment. He bounced from San Jacinto (Texas) College to Illinois State, then he sat out a year after transferring to Minnesota. Before he played a game with the Gophers, Lofton was kicked off the team and moved on in 2016 to Texas Southern, whom he helped reach the NCAA Tournament. From there, he went to New Mexico State for his senior season, where he averaged 20.1 points and five rebounds and was named first-team all-conference.
Five years. Five schools.
Even more questions.
Lofton, a 6-foot-4 guard, landed with the Pistons as a free agent after going undrafted. He’s not on a guaranteed NBA contract, nor does he have a two-way contract, which would keep him protected in the development league with the Grand Rapids Drive. His opportunity is with an Exhibit 10 contract, which pays him up to a $50,000 bonus, in addition to the $7,000 per month he could earn by staying with the Drive.
It's a chance, but there are no guarantees. With that opportunity comes another chance — but also plenty of questions about his past.
Lofton has an answer.
“That’s a long story. It was immaturity. I’m growing up and learning more and listening to people around me and trying to move forward,” Lofton said. “When you point the finger all the time, it’s four fingers pointing back. I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Zach, it might be a little bit of you.’
“I take ownership for that and I actually started listening to the people who wanted to help me. I’ve had people who have wanted to help me all my life, but listening is what has helped me the most.”
Enter Pistons coach Dwane Casey and the Pistons’ front office, who saw Lofton’s scoring ability, but also saw an opportunity to help him get on the right track. The warning signs were there, but Casey didn’t beat around the bush when trying to assess where Lofton’s head is.
“That was the first conversation I had with him: Are you committed and ready and mature enough to handle an NBA schedule and lifestyle? He said he was,” Casey said. “I’m a big believer in second chances and opportunities, and the young man has taken advantage of it. He’s been magnificent as far as his attitude, his approach and his work ethic.”
Lofton’s challenge will be bigger than that. Where he has been turned away or walked away from his past opportunities, he’ll have to face the adversity and clear the obstacles in the NBA, which can be a minefield of temptations, distractions and derailments.
Getting through Summer League, training camp and most of the preseason is a start.
“The hard part about the NBA is being consistent. We’ve only been going for a month, so now you have to do it two months, or three months — that’s a pro. When you put that effort, intensity and focus out every day, you’re a professional — and that’s what this league is about,” Casey said. “If you want to be great and elite, you do it at a high level each and every night. That’s his challenge and so far, he’s met every situation that we’ve put him in.”
Strong first impression
Off-court issues aside, Lofton is starting to look the part of an NBA player. He’s opened Drummond’s eyes already with his shooting ability and talent.
“He’s been the surprise, for me at least. I’ve seen him play a couple times in college and I know his story,” Drummond said. “I get a chance to talk to him every day. When his opportunity comes, he thrives time and time again. He’s playing great.”
Casey is making concessions to give Lofton more playing time as well. Second-round pick Khyri Thomas hasn’t played meaningful minutes in the preseason, as Lofton is soaking up that playing time, just so the Pistons can see exactly what they have in Lofton.
The initial reviews are good.
“He’s a big-time scorer. He’s done a good job on and off the floor, but he’s done an excellent job of scoring,” Casey said. “You need those scorers, when you’re playing random and in drive-kick-swing situations and he can create his shot as well as anyone.
“What I’m impressed with is his defense at the other end and also his passing. He made some excellent passes in the San Antonio game and made the right pass. The young man has been impressive so far.”
It could all come crashing down when the Pistons have to finalize their regular-season roster, when Lofton is likely to be sent to Grand Rapids, where he’ll get more seasoning and a better opportunity to play and hone his skills.
The Pistons don’t have a roster spot for Lofton and barring a surprise move, they’ll likely keep Keenan Evans and Reggie Hearn on their two-way contracts. That doesn’t preclude another team from taking a look at Lofton, a proposition the Pistons will have to monitor.
Lofton is just happy to have the opportunity.
“It’s been fun,” Lofton said. “I’ve been waiting to play at this level my whole life and I’m just taking it all in and taking everything as a positive.
Pistons vs. Wizards
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Pistons (1-2) could have their full complement of players for the first time in the preseason, but Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin will continue to be on a minutes restriction. Stanley Johnson (toe) and Jon Leuer (knee surgery rehab) are questionable.