Andre Drummond is evolving

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Andre Drummond was a full-fledged eldritch horror in Boston on Monday night, dropping 26 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals in 40 minutes against the best team in the Eastern Conference. He bullied Boston’s typically stout frontcourt defense all night, working over technical maestro Al Horford and Certified Enormous Human(TM) Aron Baynes, and snagged an inbound pass from Marcus Smart to cap off the win with an enormous exclamation point.

It was a coming-out party for Drummond, perhaps the best game of his five-plus-year career, and it showcased a myriad of improvements that have elevated him beyond the Drummond you’ve come to know and whelm. He’s already picked up some headlines this year for his improvement as a free throw shooter; the NBA’s worst statistical free throw shooter ever, he’s suddenly, improbably hitting 63% of his attempts on the second-highest volume of his career. You hear stories of players like Drummond or Dwight Howard hitting foul shots consistently in practice but failing to put it together in game situations, but it’s largely unprecedented to see a player improve at the line to this extreme of an extent. Now that we’re one-fifth of the way through the year, though, we have a large enough sample of Drummond’s newfound foul shooting to really start to buy in.

While the improved free throws are an impressive development and are opening up new possibilities for Drummond offensively (his true shooting percentage is up almost 70 points over his average for the past three seasons), the truth is that Drummond is growing in a number of more significant ways, not the least of which is a significant diversification of his overall offensive repertoire. His performance against the Celtics wasn’t a fluke; the 24-year-old is making more progress than he has in years towards becoming a fully realized NBA player, and he’s been an engine for the surprising Pistons offense, which currently ranks as the eight-best in the league per offensive rating.

The statistical growth that has impressed me most about Drummond this year hasn’t been his free throw shooting, but rather, his passing. His six dimes against the Celtics alerted me to this development: he’s dishing four assists per 36 minutes this season, a massive jump from last season’s career-high of 1.3. Take a look at the list of qualifying centers currently posting an assist rate of greater than 15%:

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Drummond is on the lower end of that spectrum, to be sure, but still: that list is a who’s-who of the best-passing frontcourt players in the league – Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, the Gasol brothers, and so on. This, from a guy who ranked 45th out of 63 qualifying centers in the same stat last season? Something’s afoot.

Watching through tape of Drummond’s assists and made baskets this season quickly revealed a very obvious trend: the Detroit offense has become an almost endless series of hand-offs featuring Drummond at either elbow or at the top of the key. It’s a canny move by Stan Van Gundy; the addition of Avery Bradley gives the Pistons a third player who excels at attacking off these opportunities to go with Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris. Drummond hands the ball off, sets a screen, then becomes a roll man; Bradley and Co. can attack the rim, pull up for the jumper, or dish it back to Drummond at the rim. If they miss, the 280-pound monster stands as good a chance as anybody of grabbing the offensive board. The Pistons attack with these sets over and over and over again; it’s beautiful in its simplicity and how it plays to this funky roster’s strengths.

My favorite variation of these plays is when Drummond hands the ball off and immediately screens the recipient’s man entirely out of the action. Watch poor Lance Stephenson here – you can pinpoint the exact moment his soul gets banished to the Shadow Realm.

The majority of Drummond’s assists this year have come on these kinds of simple handoffs, but that doesn’t mean his bolstered assist totals are empty numbers; he’s shown a surprising amount of court vision as a passer that I didn’t realize he had in him. I tweeted after the Celtics game that Drummond has been playing like DeAndre Jordan with better free throw shooting, but while going through footage of his play this season, I realized that the better comparison might actually, in some ways, be Marc Gasol.

Drummond isn’t as sophisticated of a passer as Gasol – few centers are – but he flashes high-level passing ability a few times per game. He has surprising touch on his bounce passes and he’s doing a good job fitting the ball through tight windows in the paint. This has built chemistry with new addition Bradley in particular, who is one of the league’s best off-ball cutters, and they’ve quietly put together a nice bit of back-and-forth.

Of course, there is a drawback to Drummond’s new facilitation responsibilities, and it’s that his turnover rates have ballooned – he’s now coughing it up close to four times per 36 minutes, significantly higher than his previous rates. This is easily predictable, though, and not unheard of for young bigs who bear this kind of offensive responsibility (see: Embiid, Joel). I’d expect Drummond to cut back on these mistakes over time as he matures into his new role but even if he doesn’t, the Detroit offense is firing on all cylinders right now and I doubt they’re terribly concerned.

As a scorer, Drummond is still exactly what you’d expect him to be; over 95% of his shot attempts have come within 10 feet of the basket. He’s a great option as a roll man and a lob threat, and his prolific offensive rebounding affords him a lot of put-back opportunities. All of these fit perfectly with the hand-off-centric offense Detroit is using so heavily right now.

Van Gundy has him playing completely in his lane, and it’s reasonable not to hoist too many additional offensive opportunities on top of his new role as a facilitator. One of my biggest complaints with Drummond’s development was that it felt as though too much scoring responsibility was thrust upon him too early in his career. After two efficient seasons where his usage rate sat comfortably around 17%, his usage spiked in his third season to 22% – effectively the difference between being used like Clint Capela and being used like Hassan Whiteside. The 21-year-old Drummond clearly wasn’t ready, as his effective field goal percentage dropped over 100 points at the time of the change.

Drummond’s usage rate is still in that range, but the shot attempts have come down and the efficiency is coming back up, which has combined with his improved foul shooting and passing to dramatically diversify his game. That’s acceptable for now, and a huge improvement from his stagnation over the past three years. I’m interested to see how Van Gundy and the Pistons approach Drummond as an offensive player going forward; if his improved free throw shooting bears out, perhaps next year would be a good time to explore expanding his shooting range out to, say, 15 feet? He’s also still a freakish athlete, and there are plays that come through on his tape every now and then that make me think there’s still much more to be delved into with him offensively.

It’s not all rosy with the new and improved Andre Drummond, of course. While the Detroit offense is humming with him in the game, there hasn’t been a whole lot this year to suggest that his defensive impact has improved in a notable way. In fact, he’s arguably been a significant negative in that regard; Detroit is allowing nine fewer points per 100 possessions when he sits, although this is the case with all of their starters to some extent. Essentially, the team as a whole isn’t impressing many people on defense, but Drummond isn’t helping the issue at all.

Drummond just hasn’t yet developed into the defensive force he looked like he could be coming out of UConn. Despite his impressive frame (6’11”, 7’6″ wingspan) and notable athleticism, he hasn’t adapted to playing NBA defense. His inability to chase around stretchier bigs is a huge liability when even guys like Brook Lopez are able to chuck threes now. Against the Timberwolves, Van Gundy opted to use the more mobile Tobias Harris to check Karl-Anthony Towns while Drummond took Taj Gibson, and even the offensively limited Gibson was able to beat him a handful of times with simple off-ball movement.

Although it feels like he should be able to hang with under-the-rim maulers like Hassan Whiteside or DeAndre Jordan, his tape shows a frequent lack of physicality in these rare favorable matchups.

One positive note here, though: he’s one of only two NBA centers averaging a steal and a half per game this season (the other being DeMarcus Cousins). He’s become great at using his lanky arms to interfere with passing lanes, and although his focus can be in and out, he can really cut off access to the paint with his length when he wants to. He cuts off entry passes like a goalie stopping shots on his goal.

It’s hard to believe that while he’s now in his sixth NBA season, Drummond is still only 24 years old. After the prospect shine had worn off him and most people moved on to the next big thing, the improvement we’ve seen from him this season should serve as a reminder that growth for young frontcourt players can be exceptionally slow, and there’s still a lot of room for for more to come. He may never become a true defensive anchor in the vein of a Marc Gasol, but an impact similar to DeMarcus Cousins – capable, if unspectacular – isn’t out of the question.

Rather, it’s on the offensive end where Drummond will derive the most value going forward, strange as that is to say. The Pistons are scoring over 108 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (not far off from Paul Millsap or Karl-Anthony Towns), across from only 103 when he sits (Tristan Thompson or Mason Plumlee). His development into an offensive focal point – not just as a scorer, but as a passer and a glue guy – has been unexpected but welcome, and pushed him into a unique strata of frontcourt players. He could very well be a top-ten offensive center right this moment.

The Pistons have been one of the underrated surprises of the NBA so far, overshadowed by some higher-profile storylines like those in Boston or Cleveland, and Andre Drummond has been quite literally at the center of their success. His career has been course-corrected from “reclamation project” to “legitimate building block,” and I’m fascinated to see what might be next to come.


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