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2017-18 Pistons Preview: Jon Leuer is the most essential least essential player on the roster

Leuer does a lot of things really well, but not the one thing the Pistons need

Christopher Daniels

For the first time in his life Jon Leuer was given a vote of confidence. For the first time in his life Leuer was given stability. For the first time Leuer got PAID. And after one season in a Detroit Pistons uniform Leuer finds himself in a peculiar place – the most essential and least essential member of the Detroit Pistons at the same time.

Leuer was brought into Detroit on a huge deal last season to fill the role previously occupied by Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver – stretch big man. In brief stints of playing time he showed he could hit the long ball (he hit 38 percent from 3 the season before in Phoenix), but he also had additional value. As an athletic 6-foot-10 player he could rebound well and he could slide into the center role in a small ball lineup. That was important after a playoff series that saw Cleveland run Andre Drummond off the floor with Kevin Love at the five.

Year in Review

Leuer began his first season in Detroit with a splash. On a team that struggled offensively all year he was a efficient offensive option that could find the gaps in the defense and had the shooting touch and athleticism to take advantage. For the first 50 games of the season he had close to a 60 percent true shooting percentage. He was, simply, Detroit’s best offensive option and because he was a versatile complementary player he supplanted Tobias Harris as the starting power forward. The Swiss Army knife approach of Leuer allowed Harris to be more of an offensive focal point off the bench. Things were going OK at first. Until they weren’t.

Leuer’s season cratered. Whether it was the enhanced competition of going against other team’s starters, running out of gas after playing serious minutes for the first time in his career or just an offensive dry spell that got into his head and snowballed, Leuer finished the year in dreadful fashion. It got to the point where he looked like the last thing he wanted to do was shoot the ball.

Jon Leuer shooting stats

Month TS% 3P%
Month TS% 3P%
October 52.7 40
November 56.7 29.8
December 62.4 33.3
January 62.2 42.9
February 52 23.5
March 49.7 22.2
April 39.3 25

One thing Leuer never really was – a 3-point shooter. He never established himself as a consistent threat and didn’t hoist at a high volume all season. That was mostly fine during the first 50 games as he was finding so many other ways to contribute. Still, on a team with Andre Drummond space is vital and Leuer only stretched out to mid-range.

In many ways Leuer was a perfect dirty-work player miscast into a specialist role. Look at where Leuer ranked in a variety of non-3-point metrics last season:

Jon Leuer play type efficiency

Play Type Frequency PPP Percentile
Play Type Frequency PPP Percentile
Cut 11.1 1.55 93.1
Putbacks 8.5 1.36 91.8
Post Up 8.7 1 82.5
Transition 13.8 1.24 74.6
Spot Up 30.4 0.86 28.9

Please note in the above table the fact that Leuer is super good at a lot of things. Except the thing he does most often — work as a spot-up shooter.

It was one of the reasons that the team signed Anthony Tolliver in the offseason, and with Henry Ellenson having a year of seasoning under his belt the perimeter-oriented power forward market is currently pretty crowded in Detroit. With Tobias Harris seemingly retaking the starting power forward role and people elbowing in for playing time at his position, it is fair to wonder what the future holds for Leuer.

Even if you’re a player who offers a variety of skills that help teams win games if you don’t provide the most fundamental skill in today’s NBA – spacing – your playing time can get squeezed. With a complete non-shooter like Drummond on the team it becomes even more of a factor.

One Big Question

Can Leuer rediscover his 3-point shot or did he never really have it to begin with?

Leuer is a career 33.8 percent 3-point shooter. That’s just on the threshold of acceptable for a “stretch big” to be considered dangerous. His effectiveness has varied wildly from season to season. 46.9 percent one year to 24.1 percent the next to 38.2 percent the season after. However, he’s never been a prolific shot taker and he’s played limited minutes throughout his career until his breakout season in Detroit.

It’s important to realize that might all just be small sample size noise. The truth is probably in the aggregate. Leuer has had 124 makes in 367 career attempts. That’s probably a good indicator of the shooter he truly is. Or at least one the Pistons can reasonably count on. He is not Ersan bombing away at will. He’s not even Tolliver, for that matter.

As long as the Pistons can find time for him on the floor as a athletic scorer and rebounder who will cut, post up and clean up the glass Leuer will have a place on this team.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Role

That place, however, might be as a backup center. A lot of Leuer’s future is dependent on the development of the players around him. In many ways it resembles the experience of watching and rooting for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for all those years in Detroit.

KCP was a player who you could count on for defense and the question always was whether he would grow his offensive game, and if not, would his limitations be acceptable because of the offensive growth of his teammates.

After a terrible offensive year last season the Pistons decided, rightly I think, that they couldn’t give KCP his long-term contract at middling offensive efficiency with so many other question marks on the roster. Instead, they replaced him with a more consistent offensive threat in Avery Bradley. Bradley’s addition along with the additions of Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard and even Tolliver mean that there will be less pressure for Leuer to deliver on the perimeter. But for a player like Tolliver or even Ellenson to play that might mean that Leuer needs to slide down to the center position.

There just so happens to be a giant 7-foot-3 man by the name of Boban Marjanovic standing in his way.

So Leuer faces the possibility of getting squeezed on both ends, not necessarily through any fault of his own. If Stan Van Gundy is in desperate need for 3-point shooting he could rely on Harris, Tolliver or Ellenson to fill that role. If Marjanovic proves he can carry over his prolific offensive production into a regular bench role he will be entrenched as the backup center.

That means no time for Leuer’s versatile dirty-work production.

Conversely, if Boban struggles there is an easy pathway for Leuer to contribute. If Stanley Johnson struggles and Harris slides into a starting small forward role then there is a new starting power forward slot opening up. But if everyone contributes as designed no player is liable to feel the pinch more than Leuer.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Best-case scenario

Leuer recaptures the magic he saw for two-thirds of the season last year coming off the bench as a versatile offensive option. He again rebounds and pitches in an efficient 60 percent true shooting effort without needing any plays called for him. He gets most of his roughly 22 minutes per night as the backup power forward with occasional bursts as a small-ball center alongside Ellenson or Tolliver when the Pistons really want to push the pace.

Worst-case scenario

There remains a lid on the basket anytime Leuer launches from 3 and the Pistons offense goes in the tubes. Desperate to find a spark Van Gundy relies on any and all 3-point threats and Leuer sees his playing time dwindle until he is out of the rotation entirely. Eventually, the Pistons get super desperate and add a first-round pick to a team willing to take on Leuer’s deal as Detroit looks to remake its rotation on the fly.