For the first five years of his career, Andre Drummond was known as just a rebounder. In season six, he’s magically transformed into an elite passing center.
What we’re seeing from Andre Drummond this year is bizarre. After reinventing himself, he’s playing the best basketball of his career, and the Detroit Pistons have stormed out to a 14-6 record. At the time of this writing, they’re one of six teams with that many wins: Boston, Houston, Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland. Drummond is still a tremendous rebounder, and his 15.6 nightly boards are tops in the league. He’s also averaging 14.3 points, and his drastic improvement from the free throw line has turned plenty of heads.
After last year’s nauseating clip of 38.6 percent, Drummond has flipped that around completely. At 63.0 percent, he’s no longer a victim of the hack-a-Dre. That isn’t the only thing that’s seen a dramatic rise. Detroit is employing a different offense this year, one that’s respectable. Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson have been scorching to start the year. The addition of Avery Bradley has helped as well. Above all else, though, Detroit’s passing more. According to Synergy data, last year Detroit made 294.2 passes a night, good for 18th in the league. They generated 21.1 assists and 42.2 potential assists.
Now, the Pistons are the tenth-best team regarding passes made (310.4) and are eighth in assists (23.0) and 13th in potential assists (44.8). Andre Drummond isn’t the whole cause of this, but he’s been a crucial part of it. During his first five campaigns, Drummond wasn’t a playmaker. Someone would dump the ball to him in the post, and he’d go to work. That was the extent of his offense. Outside of that, there wasn’t much action. He recorded 277 assists in his first 385 games.
Stan Van Gundy is adapting his style to suit the new school. It’s tough to maintain a powerful offense if your centers are weak with the basketball or one-dimensional. Since teams are so athletic, it’s like playing five-on-four, and that means they throw extra pressure at the other ball handlers. Last year, Detroit ran their offense like that. Now, Van Gundy doesn’t shy away from having Drummond be a key cog in his sets. Additionally, Drummond isn’t finding himself in situations where he can’t do anything, and a lot of the action that involves him is almost the same.
Drummond is a big body. He stands around 6-11 and is somewhere around 270 pounds. He eats up a lot of space and is a great screen setter because it’s hard for smaller players to slither around him. The go-to for the Pistons is to get Drummond the ball above the free throw line, send either Bradley or Harris in motion and work that into a handoff or a pick-and-roll. Against the Celtics on Nov. 27, Detroit ran variations of those sets until they became blue in the face, and Drummond earned four of his six on those plays. It was his fifth game this season this season with at least five dimes (and he then tallied seven in the subsequent game against Phoenix).
On the play below, Bradley passes to Drummond before beginning his marathon around the court. Drummond bumps Jaylen Brown lightly to slow him down, creating a bit of separation for Bradley. He then meets Harris at the elbow, and the two of them occupy three defenders because there seems to be a miscommunication. When Drummond is going to give the ball away, it’s Al Horford job to hedge and impede Bradley’s progress, which he’s unable to do. As that’s happening, Jayson Tatum gets stuck in no man’s land and is late contesting Bradley’s floater.
Those plays work for two reasons — Drummond knows how to use his body, and his teammates are in advantageous situations. About 98 percent of basketball players need a system to be successful. If they don’t have that, a lot of guys who are solid look awful, and that leads to us firing up the Hot Take Cannon. That’s not a knock on the players; that two percent is made up of superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden. There are even a few stars who need a system to fall back on. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley are playing at an All-Star level because they’re not going out and trying to do too much.
Those two have similar styles. Neither is an other-worldly athlete, but their skillsets are broad, and they can make shots from all three levels. Being a versatile scorer opens up the floor, and no defense can risk leaving one to help on the other. Once you throw in Drummond and his refined passing, things become troublesome for opponents.
Harris excels in the pick-and-roll, and Bradley loves to run off of handoffs before pulling up for a mid-range jumper. Those are staples in Detroit’s playbook. And Drummond, because he’s a mountain, makes those looks easier. He’s able to block off whoever’s chasing around Bradley or Harris, which then puts the opposing big in an unfavorable position. They can either sag off and give up the open jumper or step up and get blown by. It’s quite the predicament. Between the two of them, Drummond has assisted on 46 field goals.
Over the first 20 games, Drummond is handing out 3.7 assists, up from his 1.1 last year. He’s also on pace to record a career-best assist percentage of 16.7, and his usage sits at 20.9. The Pistons have stayed hot and are 6-3 over their last nine contests, where Drummond has loaned a more significant helping hand with 4.8 dimes a night. Not all of his assists, however, come on plays that Van Gundy outlined. This year, Drummond is playing like he understands the game more.
Bigs aren’t expected to be worldly passers. Most of the time, coaches just want them to be able to pass out of double teams or send it off to the open man out of the pick-and-roll. Anything else is a bonus. Drummond, in addition to his little handoffs, is connecting on pocket passes and accurately reading the defense when someone makes a backdoor cut. Making the easy play never goes out of style. When someone says that his transformation is remarkable, it is.
The Detroit Pistons have become a dangerous team because everyone has elevated their levels of play. Both Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley have been lights-out, and Reggie Jackson is slowly looking like his old self. As excellent as they’ve been, Andre Drummond has snatched the spotlight. There was a lot of talk about Drummond this summer and if he had already plateaued. From what he’s done this year, it’s a new beginning for someone who’s just 24-years-old.
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