A quick glance at Andre Drummond's per 36 numbers might lead us to think that he has not improved dramatically since his rookie year. After all, by that metric he averaged 13.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in his Detroit debut. In that light, last season’s 17.8 points and 16.2 rebounds per 36 minutes shows solid progress but not a large leap forward.
Remember, however, that Drummond is no longer a garbage man or adjunct scorer in the Pistons’ attack. In the past, he played a supporting role as Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and/or Josh Smith soaked up most of the touches and subsisted on dunks and putbacks. Now, both in the pick-and-roll action with Reggie Jackson and in the post, the "Big Penguin" is a primary threat that opponents must game plan to stop.
That Drummond made noticeable improvement in spite of having a bigger target on his back in 2015-16 should be a source of encouragement to Motown’s fans. And if he can make similar advances over the next three to four years, we may be celebrating the first player to average both 20 points and 20 rebounds since Wilt Chamberlain last did it in 1968-69.
As is, at age 22 Drummond was the league's top rebounder with 14.8 per game. No one else came close to his 4.9 offensive board average, and only DeAndre Jordan (10.3) topped his 9.9 defensive rebounds. He was also sixth among centers in scoring at 16.2 points. Of those who scored more, the only one to best his 52.1 field goal percentage was rookie Karl-Anthony Towns at 54.2 percent (side note: is KAT already the best center in the NBA?).
As good as he already is, what remains unclear is how much better Drummond will become. Both on offense and defense there remain significant holes in his game. If he improves little or not at all in these areas, he still will probably remain an All-Star talent for at least the life of his impending max contract. But the potential is there for him to be much more.
According to Dr. Marcus Elliott of the P3 Peak Performance sports lab, Drummond is uniquely gifted among NBA big men. While his physical attributes help explain why he has quickly become an exceptional rebounder, his overall ceiling remains even higher:
"He can be as good as his ability to learn basketball. He's got nothing holding him back to him being the best big man in the NBA, period. If we can keep him healthy, that's the situation."
On offense, the issues are mostly Drummond’s post-up game and, of course, his free-throw shooting. His go-to move in the post is a baby hook. According to Basketball-Reference.com., he attempted 318 hook shots last season and made 45.3 percent. While that was a step up from his 42.7 percent on 192 shots the previous year, it’s not as reliable a weapon as it needs to be if he’s going to attempt it about four times a night.
While some would wish that Drummond would concentrate solely on scoring in more efficient ways, it seems doubtful that he or Stan Van Gundy will give the hook the hook anytime soon. A more reasonable expectation is for him to increase his accuracy as he did last season. Working harder at first getting deep position in the post before he shoots might do more than simply practicing his shot mechanics.
Drummond’s free-throw shooting has received much more attention. Given the fact that he shot a career-worst .355 percent on a career-high 7.2 attempts per game, this concern is completely understandable. When teams employed the hacking strategy successfully, Van Gundy was forced to replace him with backup Aaron Baynes. While Drummond averaged his most minutes yet (32.9), being sent to the bench to avoid being fouled had to be a discouraging experience for him.
Last year’s offseason strategy was to employ a shooting coach (Dave Hopla) to help Drummond become a more proficient free-throw shooter. Since that plan did not work, and even a possible rule change to curtail hacking will not be a cure-all, a more comprehensive approach will be utilized this summer. In a recent interview with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Van Gundy stated:
"Everything's on the table, whether it's some things we can do with visual imagery, some virtual reality stuff, changing dramatically how you shoot the ball -- it's all on the table. Andre would tell you the same thing. Over the next couple of weeks, we're gonna get together as a staff, talk to some outside people, and sit down with Andre to see where his head is. For it to be any good, you have to have buy-in from him."
A third area of concern for Drummond is his role as the last line of defense. While the Pistons' defensive rating improved from 19th in 2014-15 to 12th last season, they were 22nd in opponent field goal percentage (.461). Since Detroit was second best in three-point shots allowed (20.5), a more robust interior defense could pay major dividends.
Yet Drummond’s blocks (1.4 bpg) actually decreased to its lowest level yet, and Van Gundy also identified this area as a major concern in his interview with Lowe:
"He's gotta protect the rim better. He's pretty good on pick-and-rolls, and can get better. But he's got to protect the rim and challenge shots better -- whether it's blocking shots, or using the verticality to get up and be tougher. The numbers bear it out. The eyeball test, too. For his athletic ability, he's not there yet in terms of protecting the rim."
Is it realistic to expect Andre Drummond to become a more efficient scorer in the post, a .500 percent or better foul shooter, and a more fearsome rim protector all in one summer of development work?
But two out of three wouldn’t be bad.