Sunday, March 04, 2012

Will Knight Be Next Great Pistons Point Guard?

What does it say for the Pistons when, in the middle of their season, they are getting nudged off the front pages by the likes of a baseball bench warmer who hit .197 last season?

Brandon Inge is getting more media coverage than the Pistons. So is Ndamukong Suh, the football player, and his team doesn’t play any games of any meaning for another six months.

Even the high school girls are getting more space in the local papers, as their March Madness games get into full gear. Before long, the hoop-playing boys will be knocking the Pistons further from the front page.

The NBA season, in these parts, is about as in the background as elevator music.

The Pistons stink. On some nights, their stench is every bit as strong as the stuff the Brits famously wrap in newspaper and eat with chips.

But the Pistons don’t stink without some brightness in their future. They’re not ready for prime time, but they have a couple pieces—Mr. Little and Mr. Big.

Mr. Big is Greg Monroe, the Pistons’ second-year, athletic power forward/center, who’s beginning to make the 16-point, 15-rebound night a routine.

Mr. Little is Brandon Knight, the rookie point guard.

The two of them are reasons to be genuinely optimistic about a basketball team that has spent the past several years in purgatory after six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Knight handles the ball on every possession, and despite his inexperience as a pro, the kid from Kentucky is averaging less than two turnovers per game. That’s a reason to get giddy, right there.

The Pistons have had two of the best point guards in NBA history—Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas. Both of them have something in common with Brandon Knight: the Pistons stunk when Bing and Isiah joined them, too.

In all three instances, the Pistons had sunk to ridiculously low depths before they plucked Bing, Thomas and Knight off the NBA draft board in 1966, 1981 and 2011, respectively.

Bing’s story has been told before by yours truly, and others.

The one where the Pistons coveted U-M’s Cazzie Russell, playing 30 miles west along I-94, and how they salivated at the thought of the local hero suiting up for them.

Only a stinking coin flip separated the Pistons from Russell in the summer of 1966. The other team in on the flip was the New York Knicks.

The coin was flipped inside league offices in New York. The Knicks must have had home office advantage—the coin flipped their way.

The Knicks grabbed Russell. The Pistons, deflated, nabbed Bing from Syracuse University.

Bing developed into a Hall of Fame point guard, and for my money helped save pro basketball in Detroit. Russell had a decent career, but nothing close to Bing’s.

Ray Scott, a Piston at the time, recalled to me recently that the Pistons did the unthinkable with Bing, initially.

“They didn’t play Dave right away,” Scott told me as he spent some time with Big Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast a few weeks ago.

I was aghast.

The Pistons corrected that mistake 15 years later, when Thomas arrived from Indiana University.

The Pistons, once again, stunk. They won 16 games two years before Isiah, and 21 games the year prior.

Isiah was aghast.

He made no secret of his concerns.

“I wonder whom I will pass to with the Pistons,” I remember Thomas pondering aloud before the 1981 NBA draft, and he wasn’t trying to be mean. He was right—the Pistons, with their 37 wins spread over two seasons, didn’t have much talent.

But the Pistons played Isiah right away, unlike what had been done with Dave Bing in 1966.

Scott later coached Bing, and Bob Lanier—together. The Pistons’ original Mr. Little and Mr. Big.

If you want some cool, calculated analysis of pro basketball, you can do far worse than to pick Ray Scott’s brain.

So I picked it, that night on the podcast.

What is the best way to develop a point guard in the NBA, I asked, speaking specifically of Brandon Knight, who, like Bing in ’66, didn’t start for this year’s Pistons right away.

“Minutes,” Scott said. “He has to play. It’s the only way to do it.”

Then Scott dropped the bomb of Bing’s baptism, and how the Pistons were reluctant to start the string bean from Syracuse until the season wore on a bit.

Pistons coach Lawrence Frank didn’t unleash Knight until several games of this truncated, aggressive schedule had been played. Frank chose to have Knight come off the bench.

But that meant that Knight was playing against the other team’s second unit, for the most part. So Frank, wise to the ways of the NBA at a relatively young age, saw that his team wasn’t going anywhere this season, except to the bottom of the standings, and gave Knight a starting slot about 10 games into the season.

Knight has started since.

It’s far too early to tell how Knight will ultimately compare with Bing and Isiah, even as rookies. But there is much to like about Knight’s game, as tender as it is.

There’s the quickness, for one—both with the ball and as a defender. Knight moves down the court, with the ball in tow, as well as anyone in the league.

There’s the shot, which isn’t bad for a rookie. Knight has range and can nail a three-pointer—if a three-pointer is needed to be nailed.

But more important is that tiny 1.7 turnovers per game number.

The Pistons, Lord knows, have plenty of players who are good at dribbling the basketball off their foot or throwing it to the other team. It’s very nice that the kid who handles the ball the most isn’t prone to doing that.

Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.

“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.

“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”

There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.

Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.

Or at least enough to be the Brandon of choice for the front page in Detroit.

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