Adapt or die: Pistons' Andre Drummond thriving with diversified game

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Pistons center Andre Drummond is averaging 21.9 points and 18.6 rebounds through nine games this season.

Detroit — Many around the NBA consider the traditional back-to-the-basket center a relic of a bygone era, with only a couple remaining as a reminder of the classic times of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.

Andre Drummond doesn’t want to be the last of a dying breed.

The key to avoiding extinction is to evolve — and on the offensive end, Drummond has worked to diversify his game beyond the plays inside the paint that have been his career highlights: pick-and-roll plays, lob dunks and putbacks on offensive rebounds.

Drummond also has become a better defender and early in the season, he has been the Pistons’ best player on both ends of the court while Blake Griffin recovers from knee and hamstring issues. Drummond, who turned 26 in August, is posting scintillating numbers: 21.9 points, 18.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 blocks — all career bests.

Some of it is out of sheer necessity because the Pistons are missing their two best offensive options in Griffin and Derrick Rose as well as Drummond’s main pick-and-roll partner in Reggie Jackson.

It’s more than just numbers. In what could be his final season with the Pistons, Drummond is looking to cement himself as one of the premier centers in the league. He had three straight games of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds and some highlight-reel plays that opened eyes to the biggest addition to his game — facing the basket and driving to the rim, which coach Dwane Casey has encouraged.

“(Casey) has seen me do it in spurts throughout my career and he said he would like to implement the face-up game into my game because I’m a lot faster than a lot of the bigs,” Drummond said. “That’s what I really worked on this summer — just learning my spots, learning the gaps, when to attack and get myself in a good position to score or find my open teammate out on the wing.

“That’s one of the biggest things that’s been drilled in me since Casey got here, was to work on that part of my game.”

Throughout his career, Drummond has been mentioned in the same breath with some of the more versatile and renowned big men such as Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic, who have all gotten bigger acclaim.

Kevin Durant acknowledged Drummond’s excellence on the The Players' Tribune's “Knuckleheads” podcast with former NBA stars Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles last month when asked about some of his favorite under-the-radar players.

“I like Andre Drummond when he’s on the boards — he’s dominant. He’s got a skill for that; he’s special,” Durant said. “I think he can (average 20 rebounds) a game if he puts his mind to it. That’s tough to say because they’re playing such a spread game over there in Detroit.

“He’s special on the boards. Playing against him, you don’t realize how strong he is — he’s one of the strongest in the game.”

Rebound king

Drummond has two All-Star selections, but he wants more than that. He hasn’t gotten the league-wide recognition, partly because he hasn’t had the same success in the regular season or playoffs as some of his contemporaries. Embiid, in particular, has had Drummond’s number in head-to-head matchups, but Drummond’s career numbers tell a different story.

“I think I’m definitely the best ever when it comes to rebounding. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s even remotely close to the things I’ve done when it comes to (rebounding),” Drummond told The Detroit News. “It’s really cool to hear a guy like Kevin Durant, who’s loved and valued in the NBA, to appreciate a game I take seriously with the offensive and defensive rebounding.

“That’s my knack and it’s cool to hear that he appreciates that I put that much effort and work into it.”

Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020.

While Drummond doesn’t get talked about with the same superlatives as some of the other centers, he has a good gauge on his worth.

“I really don’t even care about none of that (stuff), to be honest. At the end of the day, it’s another man’s opinion,” Drummond told The News. “As long as my teammates and my staff feel like I can get the job done, what the media or anybody else says doesn’t matter to me.”

For Casey, it’s clear that Drummond is one of the best rebounders, but fitting the rest of the pieces of his game together into a cohesive mosaic is the challenge in his development. It’s not about the accolades; rather, it’s putting together a winning package.

When that happens, the acclaim will come.

“It should (get noticed). I’ve been around a lot of good rebounders but he’s one of the best I’ve seen,” Casey said. “His feel, his tenacity and great hands once he gets the ball. Now, his ability to bust out with it has helped put him in a new category.”

Time to lead

It takes more than a few good weeks to undo the taste that he has put in some fans’ memories with his lower production in the playoffs and shortcomings throughout his first seven seasons with the Pistons, who haven't won a playoff game in more than a decade.

This could be Drummond’s last season with the Pistons — he has a player option for $28.8 million next season and has hinted that he could test the free-agent market. It’s only a nine-game sample size, but so far this season is looking like the best of his career, whatever the motivation is.

“It’s a sense of urgency. I’ve had a lot of years in the league, and I know what it takes to win and to lead a team. Overall, it’s just me maturing as a player,” Drummond told The News. “Everybody is saying it’s ‘(contract-year) Dre’ and I wouldn’t even call it that.

“It’s a maturity aspect and how I carry myself on and off the court. With that, it shows the work I’ve put in over the past seven years and being here and seeing the ins and outs. Now is the time in my career where I can lead a team and I know how to do it the right way.”

Whether he’s playing for another team or returning to the Pistons, Drummond is changing his perception around the league and solidifying himself as a good two-way center. The rub for the Pistons’ front office will be if that transformation leads to a run in the playoffs.

That will determine whether Drummond gets another big contract or if he will end up somewhere else as a free agent.

“At the end of the day, I can’t control what the front office wants to do in terms of the contract stuff. The only thing I can control right now is playing the game the right way and putting my team in a good position to win. Whatever happens after that happens,” Drummond told The News. “Obviously, I would enjoy playing for the rest of my career in Detroit. Whatever happens at the end of the year happens and we’ll figure it out when that time comes.”

Five-game roll

In Andre Drummond’s last five games, he’s had three 20-20 nights and nearly one triple-double on Wednesday night against New York:

At Toronto: 21 points, 22 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block

At Chicago: 25 points, 24 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks

Brooklyn: 25 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks

At Washington: 15 points, 24 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

New York: 27 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, 0 blocks

Pistons at Pacers

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV/radio: FSD-Plus/WWJ 950

Outlook: Blake Griffin has been medically cleared and is day-to-day; he could make his season debut. The Pacers (4-4), have won four of their last five games after opening with a three-game skid, including two losses to the Pistons.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard