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Pistons roster: Battle to back up Reggie Jackson will be crucial competition in training camp

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With Brandon Jennings reportedly out until mid to late December, Steve Blake and Spencer Dinwiddie will vie for Stan Van Gundy’s eye.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Head coaches typically maintain that every starting job is up for grabs when training camp commences. Barring injuries, however, the Detroit Pistons' first five appears set: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Ersan Ilyasova, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. This does not mean that some of the anticipated starters will not face a greater fight than others. For example, while he logged the most minutes of any Pistons player in 2014-15, Caldwell-Pope may get a significant challenge from Jodie Meeks for the starting shooting guard role.

At center, Aron Baynes seems likely to sub for Drummond. Anthony Tolliver should be the reserve at power forward. Rookie Stanley Johnson will be expected to back up Morris at small forward. This pecking order is not set in stone, of course, but any other outcome will be somewhat of a surprise. And even if Meeks were to win starter’s minutes at shooting guard, there is little reason to doubt whether Caldwell-Pope would be the next man up.

By comparison, the outcome at point guard appears much more uncertain. Three players are on the depth chart below Jackson, but which one will rise above the others remains in doubt. Given the key role that manning the point plays in Stan Van Gundy’s offense, this decision may be critical to the team’s success. And no one should be surprised if the No. 2 guy on opening night is not the same man who is leading the second-team in April.

Let’s take a closer look at the candidates to be the first point guard off the bench:

Steve Blake

The mid-July swap that brought the 35-year-old Blake to the Motor City was the first indication that Van Gundy was not confident that Jennings would be ready to go when training camp started. The 12-year veteran has been a reserve for much of his career, suiting up for seven different teams. In 2014-15 he backed up Damien Lillard in Portland, averaging 18.9 mpg in 81 outings. His averages of 4.3 points and 3.6 assists were not exceptional, but he is a steady hand who has shot 39 percent from three for his career. Blake started 27 games for the Lakers in 2013-14 (his backcourt mate for 15 of those contests was Meeks).

Blake has to be the early favorite to quarterback the second unit due to his extensive experience. At 6-3 he has good size, so he can play with Jackson in situations where Van Gundy desires to have another capable ball handler on the floor. He occasionally played a similar role in Portland alongside Lillard. It probably is not in Detroit’s best interest if Blake is the primary backup to Jackson all season long, but he has shown that he is a dependable option.

Spencer Dinwiddie

The second-year man from Colorado had an uneven rookie season, which is understandable given that he missed about half of his final season in college due to an ACL tear. His season averages of 4.3 ppg and 3.1 apg in 13.4 mpg compare favorably to Blake, but he shot far less efficiently (.394 TS%). Reggie Jackson had a similarly unexceptional rookie year for Oklahoma City (11.1 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 1.6 apg, .408 TS%), so Dinwiddie’s stats should not be weighed too heavily in evaluating his potential. He did turn in two memorable performances versus Chicago, and also led a stirring (though unsuccessful) comeback against the Wizards in which he scored 20 points and dished out eight assists.

Dinwiddie’s Summer League play was curiously plagued by turnovers (his regular season assists to turnover ratio was 3.15), and he needs to show that he can score more efficiently. His .912 free throw percentage last year and his college three-point accuracy (.386) are both hopeful indicators of his shooting potential. Since his contract extends through 2016-17, whereas both Blake and Jennings will be free agents next summer, the Pistons can afford to give him more time to develop. While a better outcome for the team would probably be for him to win the backup spot in training camp and retain it all season long, this may be too much to expect from Dinwiddie. It’s possible he might improve and yet still see little time on the floor due to the superior experience and/or talent of his competition.

Brandon Jennings

On the basis of his performance last season, Jennings should be the clear favorite to soak up all the meaningful minutes at point guard when Jackson rests. In fact, even after Jackson signed his reported five-year/$80 million extension in July, there was talk that he and Jennings could occasionally share the court this season. But since the season may be one-third over before Jennings is ready to return to action, he simply will not be available when the games begin.

As of now we can only speculate about how effective Jennings will be when he is cleared to play. Even so, he potentially could become a vital sparkplug for the second unit. During last year’s 12-4 streak that ended with Jennings rupturing his left Achilles tendon, reserve D.J. Augustin carved out a major role in Detroit’s attack. Playing 19.7 minutes per game, he averaged 8.1 points and 5.2 assists. He scored in double figures in five of those 16 contests, twice distributing 10 dimes. In back-to-back road conquests of San Antonio and Dallas, Augustin’s 45 points led the team.

Other than Jackson, Jennings is the only Piston point guard who appears capable of that kind of offensive explosion. Per36, Jennings’ 19.4 ppg was second only to Jackson’s 19.7 ppg for Detroit. He scored 20 points or more 12 times in his 41 games. He also topped 30 points on four occasions, a mark that led the team.

Barring a trade opportunity that is too good to pass up, the ideal scenario for the Pistons is that Jennings returns to form by the All-Star Break. NBA teams often look for the opportunity to add a player who will bolster their playoff hopes when February rolls around. If Jennings once again becomes a dynamic offensive performer, he could elevate Detroit’s odds of returning to the postseason more than any trade deadline acquisition.

Conclusions

Which of these three players logs most of the minutes as Jackson’s backup may not be the determining factor in Detroit’s success this season, but clearly it will be important. Blake proved to be an adequate reserve for a Portland team that went 51-31 in 2014-15. If he can fill the same role this season, his experience might be exactly what this young team needs.

Like Dinwiddie, Jackson was just a second-year pro when he served as the chief backup to Russell Westbrook in 2012-13. That Thunder team won 60 games, and Jackson blossomed in the playoffs when Westbrook was hurt. Dinwiddie could be capable of a similar degree of growth if he gets the opportunity to play regularly this season, even though his growing pains might lead to fewer wins at first.

Jennings is the biggest wild card of all, for if he can play at a level close to last year’s, his impact can be a literal game-changer. During the immediate "Post-Smith Era," Jennings and Augustin together averaged 27.9 ppg and 12.2 apg, making 38 percent of their three-pointers. They were arguably the top one-two point guard punch in the league. A healthy Jennings could join with Jackson to replicate that level of offensive firepower. If that happens, Motown might get a new nickname this season – "Swag City."