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2016 Pistons preview: Jon Leuer brings versatile skill set to vital reserve role

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Pistons missed on Al Horford in free agency, but Jon Leuer is a capable jack-of-all-trades who can play both forward and center.

Art by Christopher Daniels

When the news first broke that Detroit had inked former Phoenix Sun Jon Leuer to a 4-year, $41 million contract, the rumors that Al Horford had been their initial target were still swirling. Later it was confirmed that the Pistons did secure a meeting with the former Hawk, who indeed chose to move north – but also east – and become a Boston Celtic. So the Wisconsin alum who has previously plied his trade with four NBA teams was clearly Plan B for Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower.

While there was passionate debate among fans as to whether the 30-year-old Horford would have been a good fit with Detroit’s young core, age is not a concern with the 27-year-old Leuer. On the other hand, he is not nearly as accomplished a player, with only 45 career starts as compared to Horford’s 574. Yet while Horford would have been expected to assume a starting role to match his contract (he reportedly signed for $113 million), Leuer will be given the less rigorous assignment of spelling power forward Tobias Harris.

2015-16 Year in Review

After playing in Memphis for the previous three seasons, Leuer was traded to Phoenix in June of 2015 for Andrew Harrison. Brought in to provide depth at both the power forward and center positions, he performed well in preseason and quickly became a regular contributor. Leuer posted 10 double-doubles and scored in double-figures 26 times for the Suns.

In all Leuer recorded career highs in minutes (18.7 per game), points (8.5 ppg), rebounds (5.6 rpg), and three-point attempts (1.6 per game, shooting .382). He also received 27 starts, averaging 11.5 ppg and 7.0 rpg in 25.2 mpg, with a shooting line of .514/.404/.818. Those numbers compare very favorably to what Ersan Ilyasova gave the Pistons in his 52 starts (27.6 mpg, 11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, shooting .425/.363/.725).

Fans at The Palace got a promising preview of Leuer’s abilities last December, when he scored 20 points, grabbed six boards and dished out five assists for Phoenix in Detroit’s overtime come-from-behind 127-122 victory. Leuer opened that game at power forward, but played most of his 39 minutes at center in relief of Alex Len. According to Basketball Reference, his playing time last year was divided about 60/40 between forward and center.

2016-17 Projected Production

Other than the max contract that center Andre Drummond signed, the largest deal Detroit made this summer was with Leuer. This indicates that fortifying his bench with a bigger power forward was a high priority for Van Gundy. While Anthony Tolliver was a capable gunslinger from beyond the arc and a feisty defender, he brought no more size to this position than Harris. (Only 19, rookie Henry Ellenson was deemed unready to contribute right away.)

According to Pistons.com’s Keith Langlois:

Van Gundy said that as he and his front-office staff and scouts analyzed their options, Leuer was the only player who checked off every box: the size to defend bigger players and the foot speed to defend on the perimeter without sacrificing the 3-point shooting last year’s backup power forward, Anthony Tolliver, offered. Leuer is more athletic than perceived – at the 2011 combine, he measured 6-foot-11½ with a 36-inch vertical leap – with a quick first step and the ability to put the ball on the floor to beat defenders closing out too aggressively.

If all goes as planned, Leuer’s primary role will be to fill in at power forward when Harris rests. That was a job that required less than 15 mpg for Tolliver after Harris came over from Orlando. But it’s also likely that Leuer will see time at center when Van Gundy desires a better match up with quicker, smaller pivot men, or wants a big that can stretch the floor out beyond the arc. It should not hurt one bit that Leuer is a capable rebounder. His total rebounding percentage of 16.1 lagged behind only Sun centers Len and Tyson Chandler. By comparison, on last year’s Pistons only Drummond (24.5%) and Aron Baynes (17.0%) did better.

Barring an unfortunate injury that requires him to start, expect Leuer to produce at a level approximating what he provided Phoenix in 2015-16. Since Detroit played at a slower pace (21st) last season than the Suns (third), this may provide him with fewer opportunities to score and rebound. Yet if the second unit plays at a faster pace with Ish Smith leading the attack (Philadelphia was sixth), he may not see much decline in raw production. And seeing as how Ilyasova took a career high of 42% of his shots from three as a Piston, and Tolliver almost exclusively camped out beyond the arc, Leuer should shoot more threes than he has in the past.

Prediction

18 minutes per game, 8 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, 1 three made per game, 39% three point percentage.