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2015 Pistons preview: Anthony Tolliver’s role may shrink

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With new additions Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris also able to stretch the floor at the four, “The Tolliverse” may be shrinking this season.

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The trade was a head-scratcher. Having jettisoned Josh Smith to focus on developing the team’s younger players in a season that was going nowhere but down, sending second-year prospect Tony Mitchell to Phoenix in return for a 29-year-old journeyman made little sense.  In retrospect, it was the first sign that Stan Van Gundy’s team of NBA scouts was carefully doing their job to evaluate the talent already in the league.

The exchange for Tolliver was made on Christmas Eve of 2014, and two days later his new team commenced a seven-game winning streak. The former Creighton Bluejay did not contribute much at first, but began to establish a regular role in the rotation in January. In a narrow loss at home to Atlanta, he scored 15 points and blocked two shots at the rim. From then on his quick trigger from three and energetic play made Tolliver a fan favorite.

Here are Tolliver's highlights from that night:

2014-15 Year in Review

Tolliver began the season with the Suns, where he was used sparingly (24 appearances, 11.3 minutes per game), but shot 38.7 percent from three. Nearly 84 percent of the shots he took in Phoenix were from beyond the arc. And on four occasions he made three three-pointers. It was that ability that caught the eye of Pistons’ scouts.

It was not until mid-January that Tolliver began to hit his stride in Detroit. He soon supplanted Jonas Jerebko as the first power forward off the bench behind Greg Monroe, eventually making Jerebko expendable in a February trade to Boston for Tayshaun Prince. Then, when Monroe missed 11 games due to a knee injury suffered in a March practice, Tolliver stepped in as the starter. Over that span he averaged 9.5 points in 30.2 minutes, connecting on 42.6 percent of his three-point shots. And one out of every four Pistons’ threes was made by Tolliver. For the season, his 82 threes (in just 52 games) were third highest on the team. Furthermore, his ability to stretch the floor also helped create more space in the paint for Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Tolliver gave his own assessment of his impact in an interview with Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

I saw a stat the other day about Andre. His per-36 (production extrapolated to 36 minutes) with me on the floor was like 22 (points) and 18 (rebounds). We talked about that. I knew we played well together and I knew he played well when I was on the court, but I didn’t realize it was that efficient. Really good numbers. But it makes sense. When Greg (Monroe) was on the court, he had no space. They were both on the block and around the basket and it’s hard to operate when you’re doing that. But when you have four shooters outside and you’re able to really roll to the basket, get some dunks and some easy ones, it’s just going to be a good thing for everybody. More space for Reggie, more space for Andre.

2015-16 Projected Production

While the player ahead of Tolliver, Monroe, moved to Milwaukee this summer, Van Gundy acquired the Bucks sweet-shooting power forward Ersan Ilyasova. A starter for most of his seven years in Wisconsin, Ersan is expected to play the same role in Detroit. Ilyasova has never averaged as many as 28 minutes per game, however, so it’s conceivable Tolliver’s playing time could approach the 22.3 mpg he earned for last season’s Pistons.

Yet Detroit can also call on center Aron Baynes to match up with larger power forwards. And since small forward Marcus Morris (6-9, 235) is a virtual physical match for Ilyasova (6-10, 235) or Tolliver (6-8, 240), he may see some minutes at the four as well. If Morris starts at power forward (as he has in some preseason contests) in order to make room for rookie Stanley Johnson, Tolliver’s playing time could drastically diminish.

Of the three, Ilyasova has historically been the best shooter from long range (37 percent), compared to Morris’ 36.3 percent and Tolliver’s 35.6 percent. What distinguishes Tolliver from the new guys is the volume of shots he takes from three. He attempted 71.5 percent of his shots as a Piston from beyond the arc last season. For his career, 56.1 of his shot attempts have been threes, as compared to 41.3 percent for Morris and 28 percent for Ilyasova. Tolliver knows his game and sticks to it.

When the Pistons started winning again last season after the trade, the joke was that the difference was due to "The Tolliverse." But Anthony Tolliver was no joke for last year’s team. His three-point range revealed how effectively the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll can function when there are enough shooters on the floor. While his minutes may decline some, expect him to continue to make an impact in 2015-16.

Prediction

80 games, 16 minutes per game, 6.5 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 37% 3-pt. shooting.