ORLANDO, Florida -- At the Orlando Pro Summer League, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a man amongst boys. His play at the NBA Summer League has opened the eyes of the scouts, media and team personnel attending the closed-door exhibition. He's opened my eyes too, as I'm seeing a player who is not only dominating on both ends of the court, he's taking a leadership role that his teammates and coaches appear to respect. Through two games, Caldwell-Pope is leading all Summer League players in points and steals, an encouraging sign for a team that needs precisely this kind of production.
Before this breakout began, KCP had been flying below the radar in Detroit. After the controversial draft selection that brought Caldwell-Pope to Detroit over Michigan's Trey Burke, his arrival was quickly quieted by the acquisitions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Caldwell-Pope was a small story in contrast, a rookie guard who would be a fifth option at best behind these big, new arrivals.
In year one, the limited role was a match for his reserved personality. Caldwell-Pope comes off as a soft-spoken individual, appearing shy on camera and inexpressive off-court. It was difficult to imagine him growing into a leadership role, but his breakout in Orlando has involved a lot more than a standout offensive performance. He's outspoken on court this summer, guiding his teammates, communicating during plays and shouting from the bench. Unlike last summer, when Andre Drummond and Rasheed Wallace ran the show, KCP has been an unlikely stand-out for a team that arrived without obvious veteran leadership. This summer, it is Caldwell-Pope and his compatriot Peyton Siva who are running the show, a pairing that is quickly earning the trust of the new coaching staff.
Over the first two games at the NBA Summer League in Orlando, KCP is averaging a league-high 28 points on 46 percent shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals and 2 turnovers per contest. He's also getting plenty of attention from the whistle, getting to the line 8 times per contest and converting on those shots at 88%. Pope is matching this offensive performance with trademark defensive hustle, playing the role of de facto defensive playmaker. Beyond his main focus at shooting guard, Pope is switching off onto the opponent's hot hand at the point and small forward as needed. The results have been a little mixed, but the effort is noteworthy in an exhibition where defense is usually left at the door.
Beyond the numbers, it's the voice of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that has been the most surprising this summer. On court, Pope actively coaches the still-very-raw Tony Mitchell on offensive sets. He echoes every play call Peyton Siva shouts after crossing half-court. He challenges Justin Harper to either put the ball or the player on the floor when they penetrate, a lesson Harper just didn't seem to learn against Memphis' Jordan Adams. He even encourages 33-year-old Brian Cook to box out on one end and find the stroke that's evading him on the other. In two games this summer, I heard more communication out of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope than I did last year in Orlando and the entire regular season in Detroit.
It's not all sweet, however. KCP was actively in the ear of officials in both games, coming very close to technical fouls on a few occasions. After yelling at an official on Saturday, the ref yelled back within earshot of my seat, "that was YOUR teammate's hand on your back when you fell, leave it alone and move on or we're going to have problems." The referees often told him to cool off, a sentiment echoed by Detroit's coaching staff. Granted, these are referees-in-training here, it's exhibition for the next class of officials as well. It could be that KCP often had genuine reasons to complain, but I was surprised at how often he spoke up.
Back to the breakout -- what is driving Pope to succeed in Orlando? It could be that Pope sees the writing on the wall under Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons just signed another shooting guard, Jodie Meeks, to a 3-year deal to play his position in Detroit. Pope was lost in the jumble last year, buried as a fifth option behind the undeserving Smith and Jennings. He already had to prove that he deserved a role last year, and now, he's battling a new acquisition for playing time next season.
It might be this new challenge that is driving him to succeed in Orlando. It could be that he always had it in him. He possesses the outside shot and perimeter defense that the Detroit Pistons will need next to their twin tower frontcourt in the future. If anything, this performance at NBA Summer League is showing Stan Van Gundy that KCP deserves a defined role in 2014-15. He's making his case, and everyone in Orlando is taking notice. Yours truly very much included.
I'll have more coverage of the NBA Summer League - Orlando coming soon, including a massive gallery of behind-the-scenes images and anecdotes. Stay tuned.