Beard: Pistons’ veterans setting standard for eager upstarts to follow

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

Lottery picks often have a way of changing a team’s fortunes quickly.

It wasn’t so long ago that Giannis Antetokounmpo set the league on fire as a rookie in 2013 as a starter in the Milwaukee Bucks resurgence. Seeing Jamal Murray immediately push the Denver Nuggets to success in 2016 also is a recent memory.

Except those things didn’t happen.

In his rookie season, Antetokounmpo started just 23 of 77 games after being a surprise pick at No. 15 in his draft. The Bucks went 15-67 that season but took their time with the future MVP, developing him slowly instead of throwing him into the fire.

The same was true with Murray, as the Nuggets went 40-42 in his rookie season and missed the playoffs. That season, Murray was the No. 7 overall pick and started just 10 of 82 games.

There’s no mandate that lottery picks — or even first-round picks, in general — have to start immediately on a losing team. Most teams choose to rebuild in different ways, and like many teams in recent years, they’ve chosen a more methodical path, with an eye on developing their young players slowly rather than pushing them in the deep end of the pool and seeing what happens.

That’s driven some fans to question the direction of the Pistons and why they’re giving starting minutes and large chunks of playing time to veterans over the rookies. Why is Blake Griffin playing ahead of Sekou Doumbouya? Why give Mason Plumlee minutes that Isaiah Stewart could be getting?

By most projections, the Pistons are going to be back in the basement, with a top-five pick, so why not just hasten the process and throw minutes at the young guys to gauge how they handle it?

Some of the reason is about building a culture and transitioning the baton over time, instead of simply throwing away the veterans. Especially in Griffin’s case, it’s hard to fathom with his standing on the team — even with decreased production — that he’d be a bench piece and garner the same respect from the young players.

“With young players, you can pick up bad habits really quickly if you’re not around good veterans or if you don’t have a good example. Some fans are all about tanking and playing the young guys as much as possible,” Griffin said. “Bringing guys along and not giving them too much at one time is very important. The common fan doesn’t understand the ins and the outs of everything that goes on in practice, game prep, the game, the film sessions.

“It’s very important to have those (veteran) guys and our coaching staff does a good job of giving guys what they can handle and bringing them along and when the young guys earn their minutes, they get their minutes.”

It’s part of the foundation that general manager Troy Weaver is trying to build with a roster of mostly new faces, with only four players returning from last season, headlined by Griffin. The focus is on getting high-character, hard-working young players and having them mentored by similar-type veterans.

So far, the approach is bearing some fruit.

“We wanted to come in and establish a mindset of being competitive every day, in practice, so that it could carry over to the games. We’ve done that thus far,” Weaver said last week. “The (losing) record doesn’t really say that we are progressing, but I like the progression we’re making.  Guys are competitive every day (in practice) and in games.

“There’s another level we need to get to, but we’ll get there. With this rookie class, we wanted to make sure to get the person right, and the mentality and the and in the DNA. I feel confident that we’ve done that. I feel confident that these guys will continue to progress and trend in a positive direction.”

Past practice

It’s not the first time the Pistons have followed a similar template. In 1993, they drafted Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston 10th and 11th, respectively — and the pair started a combined 42 games as rookies. Of course, the Pistons still had Isiah Thomas, who was 32, and Joe Dumars, who was 30, but that team finished 20-62 and the writing was on the wall that they needed to go in a different direction with the young players.

Hunter and Houston turned out to be good players, but even with their two Hall of Fame stars nearing the ends of their careers, the Pistons didn’t feel the need to thrust the rookies into the starting spots and let the vets sit.

With the current Pistons group, it works for Derrick Rose, because it’s easier to manage his minutes as a reserve. In Griffin’s case, it’s not as easy to do. It’s a rite of passage to earn the playing time and to transition from the vets to the young players.

“That’s just how basketball works, from top to bottom,” Griffin said. “You’ve just got to do what you’re asked and continue to raise your game, so I think it’s very important to have these veterans — I’m biased being a veteran — but it’s very important.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

Pistons at Heat

Tip-off: 3 Monday, AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami

TV/radio: FSD/WWJ

Outlook: The Pistons (3-9) notched their best win of the season, slowing the shorthanded Heat in the first of a weekend mini-series. With 54 points from their bench, the Pistons showed good balance and hit a season-high 18 3-pointers.

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