Pistons' Andre Drummond improving on the fly with Team USA

Pistons' Andre Drummond improving on the fly with Team USA
August 15, 2014, 5:45 pm
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Mark Strotman

Andre Drummond understands he isn't a prototypical center for what perimeter-oriented international basketball commands. But the 21-year-old is making the most of his summer with Team USA and is confident his unique skill set will yield him a spot when the 12-man roster for the FIBA World Championships is announced later this month.

"Everything’s a learning experience here, coming together as one. Everyone has their own egos on their own teams, being the star on their team," Drummond said, "so coming to a USA Basketball team where we all have one common goal, which is to win a gold medal, it’s just been a great experience so far. It’s been a wild ride." 

That wild ride included an uninspiring freshman season in which Drummond entered the year as the top high school recruit in the 2011 class. Though he averaged a respectable 10.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks (14th in the country) in 28 minutes per game, his effort was questioned and he didn't dominate games nearly as often as a player with his skill set and athleticism should have.

On potential alone it was apparent Drummond was ready for the NBA, and he declared for the draft despite the sub-par season in Storrs. He fell to the Pistons at No. 9 in a talented class, though that selection came after players including Thomas Robinson (No. 5), Harrison Barnes (No. 7) and Terrence Ross (No. 8). In speaking with Drummond, he doesn't feel his draft spot was unwarranted -- "I didn't have a stellar year" -- but it quickly became his daily motivation to succeed and to prove that his talent level could match his output.

"Coming from where I came from, the situation I had at (Connecticut)," he admitted, "a lot of doubt surrounded my name and my game."

That work ethic quickly changed when he arrived in Detroit. A stress fracture in his back cost him 22 games as a rookie but he managed to finish on the NBA's All-Rookie second team; he was one of 12 players to average a steal, a block and at least seven rebounds, showing off his defensive versatility while also shooting 61 percent from the field, albeit on just six shots per game.

[BULLS: Thibodeau relishing role with USA Basketball]

Detroit was busy the following offseason, acquiring Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith to team up with Drummond, and the big man showed results on the new-look roster. In 81 games, Drummond averaged 13.5 points, led the Eastern Conference in both rebounds per game (13.2) and field goal percentage (62.3 percent), this time on nearly 10 shots per game, and at just 20 years old - he turned 21 in August - showed potential as one of the better true centers in the NBA.

"I felt the way I came out my rookie year and into my sophomore year, I feel like I’ve really proved a lot of people wrong," he said, "and showed them I can really play the game."

He's showed as much this summer, too.

Aside from Brooklyn's Mason Plumlee, Drummond entered Las Vegas training camp as the only real true center. USA Basketball veteran Anthony Davis has been all but penciled in as the team's starter, while DeMarcus Cousins and Kenneth Faried round out a front court of players all capable of knocking down important mid-range shots. That's not the case from Drummond, who in two seasons has attempted just 24 shots outside of 10 feet.

But Drummond has played his game in Las Vegas and most recently Chicago, and he's turned some heads. Withe elite rim-protecting prowess, arguably the best rebounding talent - he led the NBA with 6.1 contested rebounds per game last year, per NBA.com - as well as athletic frame that allows him to run the floor - a necessity on this team - he's meshing in well with the rest of the roster despite his untraditional international skill set.

"With him on the floor it makes the job that much easier for anybody," Cousins said. "You’ve got a guy down there, big body with great leaping ability and he’s great at protecting the rim, rebounding offensive and defensively. He’s always a guy you want to have on your team."

[BULLS: Derrick Rose continues to impress with Team USA]

It's not dissimilar to the role Tyson Chandler played on the gold-medal 2010 USA squad. Though Chandler played just 77 minutes in nine games, his interior defense as the lone true center was invaluable to Team USA's success. Rudy Gay, who played on that 2010 team and was added to this year's group following Paul George's injury and Kevin Durant's decision to leave the team, sees similar traits in Chandler and Drummond.

"He can be that guy: run the floor, play defense, block shots and protect the rim," Gay said. "It’s really important, whether it’s to start or come off the bench, I think every team needs that. Every team needs that rim protector, the guy that doesn’t need the ball to affect the game."

Granted, Chandler was a polished 28-year-old with 10 years of NBA experience in 2010, and director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo said that Drummond's talent was enough to get him an invite but that he still has plenty to prove simply because of his age.

"He’s really young as a player, also chronologically, but he keeps showing more and more in our camp, and sometimes when people get hurt, it opens up an opportunity," he said, referencing DeMarcus Cousins' knee sprain that will keep him out of Saturday's exhibition against Brazil. "If he runs the floor and rebounds and blocks some shots, he has the ability to make the team and the ability to get some playing time when called upon. But he’s young in this game."

Added Team USA assistant and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who coached against Drummond in college: "Big guys take time, especially when they come out of college early. But he’s getting better, he’s physical, he gives a physical presence out there. Not many people can bring to the table and he’s a good kid, he works hard and he’s been fun to work with."

Drummond's skill set isn't changing. But like every player in camp, especially those on the border of making the final cut, he's using his traits to best help anchor the Team USA defense while improving around some of the game's best. With Cousins sidelined for Saturday's exhibition Drummond may see additional time against a front court-heavy Brazil team, and whether he's on the final roster, being able to show off his continued improvement will be a key for him as he prepares for his third NBA season in Detroit.

"I feel like this past summer that’s what I’ve really been working on, just becoming a better back-to-the-basket player and becoming more comfortable with it," he said. "And definitely having the opportunity to showcase that type of skill that I’ve been working on, not only am I using it now it’s something I’m going to use throughout the rest of the season.