Andre Drummond was ready for the next step. He won gold for Team USA and said it was time for him to be the team's leader coming into this season.
But right now the only thing Drummond is leading his team in is personal fouls, as the big man has gotten off to an unexpectedly rocky start to his third season as the team itself has stumbled to a 2-6 record. It's getting to the point where an argument could be made that the battle for a starting job shouldn't be between Josh Smith or Greg Monroe at power forward, but Monroe or Drummond at center.
Most of the ire from fans has been focused on Josh Smith, who still makes more damaging decisions than any other player on the roster. For Drummond, though, it's not poor decisions (though his defense is still surprisingly bad), it's that he's not a factor at all during most games. He's just kind of out there. He's been in foul trouble nearly every game this season, and it's limiting his minutes and his effectiveness.
But even more alarming is the total collapse of his offense. Prior to this season, Drummond specialized scoring at one of the most efficient rates in basketball thanks to put backs, lobs and fast break opportunities without having plays run for him. That dynamic has totally flip-flopped this year as he's constantly getting his number called with his back to the basket, exposing his absolute lack of post moves. The results have been predictably bad.
He's gone from 13.5 points, and 10.9 rebounds on 62.3 percent shooting last year to 8.6 points and 10.9 rebounds on 41.7 percent shooting this year.
And it seems he finally let some of his frustration show during last night's game against the Washington Wizards, sitting despondently and staring straight ahead far away from his teammates who were diagramming the next crunch-time play. Drummond knew he wasn't getting in the game. He had four fouls, two points and he was done.
Afterwards, Van Gundy was asked about the struggles of his franchise cornerstone, and the loquacious coach was surprisingly brief. "I don't have any idea."
Prior to the game, however, Van Gundy said that he had no plans to stop featuring Drummond in the post, saying to do so would be a "major mistake."
How could changing course when something obviously isn't working be a major mistake? The only explanation is that Van Gundy is game planning for the 82-game season and beyond, not just that night's opponent.
It explains his use of Drummond on offense, the green light he's seemingly given Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who hoists shots whether he's having a good night or bad, and the extended role he's carved out for Josh Smith, who's limited his 3-point shots but has the same array of good and bad plays on both ends of the floor that has turned him into a liability as opposed to an asset.
It seems that the first-year head coach wants to get his seven-foot Peter Pan out of the comfortable confines of Neverland and into the real world. It's time for the fun-loving man-child to morph into a man.
It's time for Drummond to grow up.
Yes, Drummond could probably live off put backs and rim runs for his whole career and be efficient and effective. But would he be the superstar so many Pistons fans and those in the organization think he can be?
If Drummond truly has superstar potential, he needs to stop doing only the things that come easy to him and start learning how to do things that are hard.
That means not just skying to the heavens for offensive rebounds, but effectively boxing out, securing the defensive board and not giving the opposing team another opportunity. That means not just lobs and dunks but plays in the post that draw a double team and open up lanes for cutters and open opportunities on the perimeter. That means not just blocking the occasional shot but playing solid post defense and taking control of the paint. And it means becoming an offensive threat that other teams must game plan around and a force that he can build an offense around.
The counterargument, of course, is that while Van Gundy seems fixated on turning Drummond into the next Dwight Howard, Dre was already poised to be the next Tyson Chandler, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Throughout his career Chandler has been a difference-maker on the defensive end, and while Drummond is far from that now, he has all of the tools he needs to eventually become one someday. What Chandler didn't have is any offensive game. But he focused on what he could do and never forced the things he couldn't, spending years as one of the most brutally efficient players in the NBA.
Chandler has never averaged more than eight field goals a game and has a career field goal percentage of 58 percent. And while he'll never draw a double team, he's always been a danger to cut to the basket and finish an alley-oop if you don't pay attention to him at all times.
Last season, 86 percent of Drummond's attempts were either layups, dunks or put backs. This year, the number is just 68 percent. The rest have been the ill-advised hook shots and short jumpers in the paint. In the process, Drummond has gone from one of the most efficient players in the NBA like Tyson Chandler to shooting like fringe NBA player and draft bust Thomas Robinson.
This is the long game that Van Gundy can afford to play as a new coach and team president with absolute job security. Even if the Pistons didn't win another game, he's in no danger of getting the first-year hook like Maurice Cheeks did last season.
But Van Gundy is attempting to walk a very dangerous tight rope -- designing his system that exposes players' weaknesses in order to help them break bad habits, learn new good habits and in the process improve. But in doing so, he's willing to give up valuable possessions -- ones that could have turned some of Detroit's close losses into wins, transforming them from cellar dwellers to playoff contenders.
He has a track record in Miami of molding a low-scoring, inexperienced young team from doormats to first-round threats in the span of a single season. He's trying to do the same in Detroit. And it speaks to his supreme confidence that he's willing to live with the struggles from Drummond and KCP, and the losses that come with it, in order to do the things the right way.
But if it doesn't work, he risks alienating players and putting his young star in a funk he might have a hard time escaping.
In other words, can we get a few more lobs, please, Stan?