The biggest question going into training camp for the Pistons is, "Who will start at SG?" Even though we’ve got several unanswered questions about the playing rotations, the rest of the starting lineup seems set. But shooting guard is clearly a conundrum. In a recent article on Pistons.com entitled Camp Questions: Balancing Act, Keith Langlois wrote:
Cheeks might consider using Stuckey off the bench, where he could be featured more as an attacker than he probably can be as a starter. To truly boost the perimeter threat in the starting lineup, though, would require Billups to start, risking overuse for a player who turns 37 tomorrow. Caldwell-Pope would make Cheeks’ decision easy only if he proves the rare rookie ready to consistently knock down triples.
In still another article (Mo: Full Speed Ahead), Langlois quoted Coach Mo Cheeks as saying, "I want to create turnovers. I want to get out in the open court. We’ve got some runners. We’ve got some athletes. We want to utilize those guys in those areas." Our rookie SG is an excellent athlete who averaged 2 steals per game at Georgia. So it looks like he’s exactly the kind of player we need on the court to implement Cheeks’ vision for the 2013-14 Pistons.
Sean_Corp recently made a strong argument for starting KCP (Why Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will start for the Detroit Pistons). He concluded:
And even with the influx of talent on the roster, there is no established veteran to block Pope from getting an extended run at the two spot ... Pope is the best candidate for the starting shooting guard spot. Pope is going to be the starting shooting guard for the Detroit Pistons. Maybe not right away, especially if they want Billups announced that first game at the Palace. But soon.
Earlier this summer, I wrote an article about KCP that also discussed the chances of him starting (What Can We Expect from KCP?). I concluded:
… based on the role we’ve given our lotto picks from the past 3 drafts, it’s likely that Caldwell-Pope will be given every opportunity to be a significant part of our rotation.
As part of that post, I looked at 15 other SGs picked in the lotto since 2009 to see how much they played as rookies. Ten of them averaged over 20 minutes per game, but only four started more than half of their games. Two of those four – Bradley Beal and Dion Waiters – were rookies last season. The other two were rookies in 2009-10 – Tyreke Evans and DeMar DeRozan. Of those 15, the best to date has been James Harden, who didn’t start a single game as a rookie.
After reviewing those 15, I’d say there are three basic ways to develop a rookie:
1. Take it slow
2. Plug him in
3. Sink or swim
So let’s look at three players picked since 2009 who reflect those three different approaches.
Take it slow: Alec Burks (6-6, 205)
Utah took Burks with the 12th pick of the 1st round of the 2011 NBA Draft. He’d played two years of college ball for Colorado, where he’d averaged 20.5 points and 6.5 boards as a sophomore. In two seasons with the Jazz, he’s yet to start a game. As a rookie, he averaged 16 minutes in 59 games (66-game season). Last year he made 64 appearances and averaged 18 minutes. For his young career he’s averaging 7 points (42% FGs and 35% 3s). He played well last February – 10 points per game in 27 minutes (46% FGs and 48% 3s), with a high of 26 points against the Kings. So it seems likely that Burks has earned a larger role in 2012-13. Considering how gradually they’ve developed their other young players (Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter), the "take it slow" approach seems to be Utah’s preference. (It will be interesting to see if they continue on this same path with their new PG, Trey Burke.)
Plug him in: Klay Thompson (6-7, 205)
Golden State selected Thompson with the 11th pick of the 1st round of the 2011 NBA Draft. He’d played for three years at Washington State, averaging almost 22 points (44% FGs and 40% 3s) and 5 rebounds as a junior. As a rookie, he averaged over 16 minutes and fewer than 8 points per game through February. Then in March of 2012 his scoring picked up and he won a starting job. In his final 34 games he scored in double figures 31 times, and hit for 20 or more points 10 times. Thompson finished with an average of 12.5 points (44% FGs and 41% 3s). Last season he started every game for the Warriors, giving them nearly 17 points a game (42% FGs and 40% 3s). It should also be noted that Golden State took a less gradual approach to developing SF Harrison Barnes last season. He started 81 games for them, averaging over 25 minutes an outing.
Sink or swim: Bradley Beal (6-5, 207)
Washington picked Beal 3rd in the 1st round of the 2012 NBA Draft. He played just one year at Florida, where he averaged almost 15 points (45% FGs and 34% 3s) and 7 boards per game. He began the season in the Wizards’ starting lineup and ended up starting 46 of 56 games in an injury-marred season. Beal averaged almost 14 points (41% FGs and 39% 3s) in 31 minutes per game. A closer look at his performance is very revealing. Through December (25 games), he averaged about 12 points (35% FGs and 27% 3s!) in 30 minutes per game. At one point in December, he had a stretch of five games where he shot 0-16 from 3. Beginning in January, Beal made a sharp improvement. While injuries caused him to miss much of March and April, for his final 31 games he averaged 16 points (43% FGs and 50% 3s!). Certainly some of the credit for Beal’s better performance can go to John Wall, who returned to the Wizards’ lineup on Jan. 12. No doubt the fact that Wall had to miss his team’s first 33 games also contributed to the amount of playing time Beal got early on. Still, Washington stuck with him even though his shooting was often abysmal, and in the end it paid off.
So what approach will the Pistons take with KCP? Our lack of depth at SG, plus the fact that our previous three lotto picks all won a starting job as rookies, make it likely that we won’t "take it slow." Our pattern to date has been to take a "plug him in" approach. That’s what I expect will happen in this case. And since we’re a young team with playoff aspirations, Coach Cheeks will probably want to keep the "rookie mistakes" to a minimum.
But I hope the Pistons will seriously consider adopting for KCP the "sink or swim" approach the Wizards used with Beal. Granted, Washington had no hopes of making the playoffs and was also missing its best player. But the eventual results they reaped made Beal’s early struggles worth enduring. Also, even if we do start Caldwell-Pope, we don’t have to play him full starter’s minutes. Assuming we’ll rest Drummond at about the halfway mark of the first quarter, we could do the same with our rookie SG. Rodney Stuckey (or Chauncey Billups, or Kyle Singler) could take his place when we sub in Singler (or Luigi Datome) to play SF. In this way, KCP might play no more than 20 minutes per game at first. Then, assuming that his performance improves, so will his time on the court.
So I say, "Let KCP play!"