When Joe Dumars surprised just about everybody on draft night and passed up Michigan point guard and reigning college player of the year Trey Burke and instead selected Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the Pistons fanbase was plenty skeptical.
After Brandon Knight had seemed to do everything to prove that he wasn't ready to be a point guard on a contending team (and perhaps never a point guard at all), Burke seemed like the perfect fit. After the selection Dumars quickly made his case. Get more athletic. Get tougher. Add shooting.
From his first minutes on the floor, Caldwell-Pope provided two of those three in a major way. Both in tools and current skill, he is the best individual defender the Pistons have drafted since Arron Afflalo or Tayshaun Prince. While he still has your typical rookie struggles, when he is locked in he can shut just about anybody down. He's got terrific lateral quickness and good instincts that allow him to stay in front of his defender and navigate screens. He has quick hands that generate deflections and steals.
But early in the year, he was coming up way, way short in the shooting department.
As essentially the only consistent offensive option at Georgia, KCP averaged 18.5 points via a combination of quick-burst athleticism that allowed him to get to the rim and a smooth shooting stroke, helping him to a respectable 37percent from deep. But early in his run with the Pistons he couldn't hit from deep. In fact, he couldn't seem to hit from anywhere.
His superior defense kept him on the floor and even vaulted him into the starting lineup, but that might have only exacerbated his offensive struggles. He kept taking open shots and he kept missing. In his first 12 games, he shot 34 percent and only 26 percent from three. On a team desperate for floor spacing that just wouldn't do. Over his next 12 he improved slightly to 38 percent and 36 percent from deep.
But his most recent 12-game stretch is his best stretch of the season. While scoring a deceptively low 7.4 points per game, he has become Detroit's most efficient weapon behind Andre Drummond and, crucially, provided the range to the offense it so desperately needs.
Caldwell-Pope has upped his averages to 48 percent overall and 40 percent from deep on 2.5 attempts. Among rookies playing at least 15 minutes per game over the same stretch those numbers rank first, third and sixth, respectively.
Among the same group of players he also is second in steals (1.3), has the second-lowest turnover ratio (7.4), which is unsurprising given his relatively low usage, second in both effective field goal percentage (56.6%) and true shooting percentage (56.6%). And he's doing all this while maintaining his stellar defensive play.
And he has been even better in his past six games, as highlighted by Keith Langlois at Pistons.com:
Caldwell-Pope is scoring (11 points a game over that span) with tremendous efficiency, shooting 56 percent overall and 45 percent from the 3-point line with taking 3.3 triples per game. He's getting his hands on more balls than before, as well, averaging nearly three rebounds a game and recording games of four and three steals.
And that's what Cheeks is looking for foremost from Caldwell-Pope - activity.
KCP will never have the kind of featured role that vaults him into the rookie of the year discussion among the likes of Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo or the aforementioned Trey Burke, who is having a nice rookie campaign himself. But he is certainly elbowing his way into the discussion, especially amongst the crowd that looks beyond points per game numbers.
And it also is beginning to look like Dumars hit on another lottery pick. And based on what he said wanted to add to the Pistons on draft night, he has succeeded in adding elite athleticism, toughness and, yes, even shooting.