Minneapolis — After the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin last season, team owner Tom Gores said that they could use a few more stars like Griffin to get to where they wanted to be.
Griffin has become the Pistons’ centerpiece, but if they’re going to take the next step toward becoming a perennial playoff team — or beyond — they could use a few more players like Reggie Bullock as well.
In Wednesday’s win against the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime, Griffin (34 points) was the catalyst but Bullock was the engine, with a career-high 33 points. Griffin gets most of the attention, as the team leader and leading scorer, but Bullock is carving a niche as one of the Pistons’ most important players.
It’s coming at a good time. Bullock is on the final year of his contract that’s paying him a salary-cap-friendly $2.5 million. He could command five times that when he becomes an unrestricted free agent — free to sign with the Pistons or any other team — in the summer.
And yes, that thought already is on Bullock’s mind.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder. It’s the last year of my current contract, but I’m just going out hungry. I gotta eat,” Bullock said Wednesday. “I’ve got stuff I’ve got to do and my teammates are blessing me with advice and telling me to shoot the ball and give me a lot of confidence to continue to play, perform on the court and show it.”
The Pistons’ recent six-game losing streak began when Bullock sprained his left ankle, for the second time this season. Since his return Sunday against the Celtics, he’s posted eye-popping numbers: 24 points per game and shot 55 percent (16-of-29) on 3-pointers — and the Pistons have won two of three.
In Wednesday’s win, Bullock went 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, scored 21 points in the second half and hit the final two free throws to put the game away in overtime.
“He was great. From the time I got here last year, he’s played at that level and shot at that level. He’s more than just a shooter — he makes the right basketball play,” Griffin said. “He does space the floor and knock down shots, but he’s much more than that.
“He’s a shooter. He can walk in the gym and can shoot, whether he’s cold or warm, hasn’t shot in months, tired or not tired. He’s a shooter — that’s what he does.”
Bullock, 27, is in his sixth season but just became a consistent starting wing last season, when then-coach Stan Van Gundy took a gamble on a two-year deal for $5 million. It didn’t move the needle as a big free-agent signing, but now that Bullock is flourishing, it’s looking even better than the trade that brought Bullock and Marcus Morris for a 2020 second-round pick — in a true fleecing of the Phoenix Suns in 2015.
Making a name for himself
The spike in his play hasn’t brought notoriety for Bullock. One wire service story on Wednesday night misidentified him as “Randy” Bullock.
It’s a yeoman’s existence for Bullock, but after finishing second in the league in 3-point shooting at 44.5 percent last season, another strong season could bring a huge raise — as well as making a bigger name for himself around the league.
“For the most part, people kind of get overlooked over here. We know how valuable he is to us,” Griffin said. “We ask him at times to guard the other team’s best player. He guards (Kevin Durant) and really good players and doing a good job and holding his own, and then to have the energy to go down and hit big shots.
“He should get that recognition and I want him to be in that 3-Point Contest at the All-Star Game. We’ll get that campaign going, too.”
That may be a February appointment for Bullock, who has developed on the defensive end as much as he has as a 3-point threat. He’s also improved his dribble-drive game, with the help of player development coach J.D. DuBois.
Beyond that, he has the green light to take 3-pointers — and the Pistons have found ways to put him in position to get into a good groove.
“I give praise to my teammates, for continuing to tell me to shoot the ball with rhythm. They know I’m a great shooter and the coaches were telling me to step right into it and let it go every time,” Bullock said. “They believe in me and saw shots falling. I was like, ‘(Expletive), I feel like I’m the best shooter in the league; I just have to keep shooting.’”
Pistons at Hornets
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: Since losing at Charlotte last week, the Pistons (15-14) have won two of three. Reggie Bullock has set new scoring career highs in his last two games. The Hornets (15-15) have won both meetings this season.