The 6-foot-11 Eastern European with the long stare and his game warm-ups on isn’t the traditional picture of an NBA coach.
But when Zaza Pachulia wanders down the sideline on a stoppage of play and pulls aside one of his teammates on the court to communicate a message, as he seems to do about once a game, the 16-year veteran and two-time world champion’s words carry weight.
Not looking the part but still being effective is emblematic of the Pistons’ bench unit, which Pachulia anchors in the middle. It's a group growing in cohesion along with coach Dwane Casey’s starting core.
“If you look at it, nothing crazy, nothing flashy, right?” Pachulia said Tuesday after a 115-108 victory against the New York Knicks, Detroit’s third straight. “But we move the ball, we’re moving the bodies, we’re playing the right way, cutting. Once we have unselfish guys and play the right way: We’ve got shooters, we have guys that can attack, guys with speed.
“It’s a good mix of guys out here.”
Casey’s bench is a mix of specialists: A screener and physical presence in Pachulia, a shooter in Langston Galloway, an emerging defensive ace in Bruce Brown, and a speedy playmaker in point guard Ish Smith.
The bench’s catalyst, however, has been Stanley Johnson, who took a demotion to a reserve role in stride after starting his first seven games.
Johnson has been effective in transition without Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond monopolizing the paint, and his shooting percentage in 10 games he has played off the bench is up 11.9 points to 47.1 percent compared to seven starts.
His scoring average is also up to 11.2 points from 7.1 per game on starts, despite his playing time dipping 7.6 minutes per game.
“The way he embraced that is huge, especially for a guy his age,” Griffin said of Johnson, still just 22. “I’ve seen a lot of guys not handle that professionally, so to speak, so that says a lot about him.”
Johnson scored 21 on Tuesday, his sixth game of the last nine with double figures — the Pistons have won seven games during this stretch.
“One, he’s going against another team’s second unit, that’s one advantage,” Casey said. “But he’s doing such a good job of attacking.”
Johnson is also closing games, with his defense of Kawhi Leonard down the stretch earlier this month against Toronto keying the team’s biggest win of the season. He also had a game-sealing chase-down block of a fast-break layup attempt Tuesday by New York’s Allonzo Trier.
“The most important thing Stanley is doing right now is his defense,” Casey said. “We leave him in there with the first unit because of his defense.”
Detroit bench players have only outscored opponents’ reserves in six of the team’s 18 games, so it’s not the overall onslaught Casey’s Toronto bench had last season en route to the top seed in the East.
But as the coach tinkers with Pistons’ combinations, the small sample sizes dictate that he has maybe found some winners.
The unit of Pachulia, Jose Calderon, Galloway, Johnson and Smith is the second-most effective five-man unit for the Pistons this season at plus-44.3 points per 100 possessions.
The latest iteration of the second unit, with rookie Brown taking Calderon’s minutes, is third at plus-42.
The trio of Galloway, Pachulia and Smith is the most effective combination on the Pistons at plus-22 points with more than 2.5 games of floor action together.
Meanwhile, starters Griffin, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond continue to pile on the counting numbers with 53.4 percent of the team’s points this season.
That group has more defined staples, such as Griffin's post-ups, Drummond’s league-leading offensive rebounding and pick-and-rolls through Jackson.
Casey and the second unit are finding their way, hoping to boost life into a franchise once energized by the likes of reserves such as Vinnie Johnson, John Salley, Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur making plays to pump up The Palace.
While the joyous connection with fans at Little Caesars Arena is still a work in progress, Pachulia can see that level of enjoyment with the players during this successful stretch.
“We’re watching the film and talking to each other, and how we could help each other and help the team - that’s what it is and it’s fun to be part of,” he said.
“The film work, practices… it all becomes fun.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.