Auburn Hills — Andre Drummond was one of the last players on the practice court, shooting 3-pointers with Pistons assistant coach Tim Grgurich. When Drummond’s final two attempts missed the mark, he took off running, with a smile on his face.
It’s an odd juxtaposition seeing Drummond smiling and running the dreaded suicide drills, sprinting from one end of the court to each line, then back. It’s typically a punishment for something done wrong, but Drummond explained why he was running and smiling.
“It’s the first year in a while that I’m the last one off the floor and I’m enjoying what I do after practice in my workouts. I was running suicides because coach (Grgurich) and I have a bet that if I don’t make two 3s in a row before I leave, I have to run suicides,” Drummond said Monday.
“It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy my time and the coaching staff and the work we’re putting in. We’re having a good time and I’m looking forward to an enjoyable season.”
Drummond seems to be flashing more in practice and games this season than any time in his career, especially under former coach Stan Van Gundy for the previous four seasons. The new era with Dwane Casey has brought a new coaching staff and a renewed focus for Drummond, including extensive work with the diminutive Grgurich to refine his shooting skills and to round out Drummond’s skill set.
“He’s like my fairy godfather — he’s always in my ear and he’s so small but I hear him every time I move around. Every time I do something, I hear him in the back of my head saying something,” Drummond said. “He’s been a great help to me, expanding my game out to the perimeter and learning to do different things the right way … he’s been really good for me and I’m excited to have him here.”
John Niyo and Rod Beard preview the 2018-19 Pistons under new coach Dwane Casey. The Detroit News
Last season was the best of Drummond’s six-year career, as he posted 15 points, and career highs of 16 rebounds, three assists and an eye-opening 61 percent on free throws. He earned his second All-Star selection, but more importantly, he seemed to take a step on his mental approach to the game and his motivation to improve in other facets.
Drummond has played the preseason with improved confidence, going hard in the paint and imposing his will. He had a dominant performance, with 31 points and 16 rebounds, in the preseason opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Casey noticed a different energy around him throughout the preseason, as Drummond built a consistency.
“It gives us a toughness and a hub to be around,” Casey said. “It gives a toughness and an energy and organization about our team once he does get in the post.”
It’s some of the same drive that Drummond drew criticism for when he left Connecticut after his freshman year and entered the draft. At age 25, he’s still young in NBA years and maybe things are clicking more for the 6-foot-11 center.
“He’s making his way up to superstar — there’s no other way to say it. There are tiers of stars and superstars and ultra-stars,” forward Stanley Johnson said. “He’s moving up the ladder and trying to take the steps to make sure he gets to that point in his career. You can tell by his actions and the way he goes about things.”
Those traits have been more plentiful this season with Casey, who has been supportive of Drummond expanding his game — even out to the 3-point line — and having a bigger role as a leader. Along with Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson, Drummond has become one of the key leaders that Casey consults to gauge the team’s temperature.
When Pistons owner Tom Gores was considering trading with the Clippers for Griffin, Drummond could have taken it as an affront, that he would have to cede some of his influence over the team. Instead, Drummond welcomed bringing in another cornerstone player who could improve the team.
“They gave me an idea (before the deal) and said they were looking to trade for him but they didn’t know who they were going to give up for him. I said I wouldn’t mind it at all,” Drummond told The Detroit News. “I said, ‘Oh, (crap) — if they’re going to give him up, let’s take him.’”
Adding Griffin was something of a gamble, as it put the Pistons’ two largest contracts with big men and prevented them from making other big moves in free agency. With more than $140 million left remaining over the next four years, it’s a bold move, but Gores is betting that having two big men makes the Pistons unique.
The Pistons got a small taste, in 25 games with Griffin last season, but it was a difficult transition for Griffin, trying to mesh with his new teammates on and off the court.
“The biggest step for us this year in the first two months was about feeling each other out and how to push each other’s buttons and make each other ready to go,” Griffin told The News. “Now, we’ve both settled into that, whether it’s him getting on me for putting my head down after a missed shot or me going to him and saying I need you to do this.
“That’s the kind of relationship we have. That’s been huge: just his willingness — he’s been an All-Star twice — but to listen and be ready to get on the same page and him coming to me as well and telling me what he thinks. We’ve bought into the idea that it’s more important to get it right than to be right.”
Griffin said that he’s had conversations with Gores about what his role would be and part of that is mentoring Drummond and helping him to raise his level, beyond being an All-Star, to becoming a megastar. More than that, it was giving a more veteran presence to a team that had talent, but could use a more proven veteran to drive it toward success.
Casey sees that the pairing is working.
“Blake has been around other dominant centers like Deandre Jordan and he can share things with Andre,” Casey said. “There’s a wealth of knowledge Blake has and he’s seen everything.”
It took some time for them to figure out their common group and what buttons not to push, but they’re there, after some sniffing around.
“It’s like having two pit bulls in one house — you have to figure each other out. He’s been great,” Drummond said. “It’s an understanding where we don’t have to say much; we just feel each other out while we play."
Casey and Drummond also have built a strong relationship, in just a couple months. They met several times over the summer and Casey has become a calming influence over Drummond, hoping to bring out his best.
It’s a change from the fiery dynamic with Van Gundy in previous years, when the two didn’t always get along — and sometimes Drummond sulked or didn’t give his best efforts.
“(Casey’s) energy is just something different — it’s just positive energy all the time. He never seems to be upset. He’s never mad at a shot or a defensive mess-up,” Drummond said. “It’s always on to the next play and he’s worried about what we can do better for the next possession.
“It’s really encouraging having him here and the coaching staff is the same way. Everybody is just a ball of positivity and it spreads throughout the entire team.”
While Drummond has been quick to praise Van Gundy for all the good things he did, he also points out where there was some friction. Van Gundy is known for his strong-armed style and Casey’s arrival ushers in a new era of coaching.
“It was night and day, because Casey coaches for today’s basketball. He tailors it to today’s run-and-gun basketball,” Drummond said. “No knock against Stan — he was still stuck in the stop-and-go, run-every-play, possession style of basketball. That’s not how today’s game runs.”
With a new coach and a new attitude, Drummond keeps a smile on his face — and like Casey, that looks to have a positive impact on his game.