Andre Drummond: Point Center, it's a thing, and it's working


The Pistons are off to a great start in the early going of the season, there are a lot of things that look different with the team and one of the biggest differences is Andre Drummond's role on offense. In the past, he has been almost exclusively used as a roll man in the pick and roll and occasionally running dribble hand-offs with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His other involvement in the offense was the foray into posting up.

The Pistons have gone away from their pick and roll heavy attack in a big way early in the year, something that Stan Van Gundy (a longtime pick and roll guy) has admitted is a bit uncomfortable for him, but he is going with it at the advice of assistant coaches and his brother Jeff. Over the past two years, the Pistons have been one of the heaviest pick and roll teams in basketball, and it's usage has been nearly halved this year. Instead, they have replaced it with a much more motion-heavy offense, full of back cuts and dribble handoffs all over the floor. Even when they go to pick and rolls it is often after several other actions.

A key cog in the new motion-based offense is Andre Drummond facilitating from the elbows. For people who haven't watched much of the Pistons over the past few years, this would seem pretty absurd to imagine, in his career Drummond has averaged less than one assist per game and has never managed to shake the reputation from early in his career that he is a dunker and rebounder only. However, despite his low assist totals, he has shown an ability to pass before in his career but has rarely gotten a chance to use it. The Pistons as a team ran their offense almost exclusively from their point guards over the past few years, and the only time Drummond would get the offense through him it was usually in the form of a post up and no one ever bothered to double team him which combined with bad shooters and few effective cutters meant that there was never much opportunity for him to pass.

This year it is different, however. Drummond as a post up guy failed pretty spectacularly last year (although if his free throw shooting stays perked up it may be wise to re-visit the idea down the road) and the Pistons decided to get him involved in the offense in other ways, most notably by using him as a facilitator from the elbows.

The first way the Pistons use him is with simple dribble hand-offs like this one.

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This is the dribble hand-off in its most basic and least threatening form. There is nothing beyond the handoff and it results in Avery Bradley (a favorite partner of Drummond for these actions) getting a long two-pointer. This is a very basic action and has been a fairly regular thing the Pistons have used with their shooting guards (mostly Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) over the last couple of years, in fact, it is something used by most teams, there is nothing particularly special about that specific play. There is a certain amount of nuance that can make certain players better or worse at dribble hand-offs, and Andre has always been pretty adept at them, but this is a fairly straightforward thing.

If they have used this a lot in the past, what is different this year?

With KCP it almost always looked exactly like that play. He pulled up for long twos almost every time, and there was almost nothing else to it, those dribble hand-offs were nothing more than a tool to try and get KCP an open look a few times per night. This year they use that basic one as a set-up to better looks and it is an integral part of the offense.

They start by adding a little bit of extra flair to it, often in the form of throwing a pin-down screen for the ball handler (in this case Avery Bradley again) and then also put him out beyond the three-point line like so.

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Once again, there is nothing overly remarkable about this set. It just has some added motion beyond just the initial and central action. The Pistons did run this sort of stuff last year (especially with that pin-down screen from Tobias Harris) but it was more often the case that there was less movement away from the ball. Here Tobias screens and then pops out to the line while Ish Smith makes a cut to the hoop and through towards the corner, and Andre sets himself up as a hard obstacle and essentially takes two defenders out of the play. The fact that it is run beyond the three-point line for a legit shooter (which KCP wasn't) makes it extra threatening and something they did not do nearly enough in the past, being far too willing to take long twos out of these movements.

Once you have it established then you can start to use it in the same way that a football team tries to establish the run to set up play action. The basic dribble handoff isn't exactly a killer play, but once you get it into the minds of the defense you can start to hit counters off of it, and with each counter the guy at the center of it all, Andre Drummond, is challenged more and more to read the defense and makes plays.

Take this play from the game against the Timberwolves this season.

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Once again, there is nothing particularly special about this play. Stanley Johnson runs up from the corner where Tobias Harris is waiting with a screen for his man (Shabazz Muhammad), Andre gives a quick pass when Stanley comes around the screen and Stanley steps into a long two-pointer. Then later in the game, they hit Muhammad with a counter.

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The setup is almost identical, with the same guy guarding Johnson from earlier. Only this time, instead of continuing to dart up for a pass, Johnson cuts to the hoop and Muhammad is way behind. Johnson is too slow to get the shot up for an assist for Andre but does get fouled. One other thing to notice with those plays is that even the first one actually isn't a dribble hand-off, Andre actually tosses a pass over to Johnson. That may not seem like a terribly complex thing, but it is not something that a lot of teams are comfortable with letting their big men do.

Hitting these counters after setting it up is something the Pistons are doing very well. Check out this sequence of plays against the Kings. 

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Once again, nothing revolutionary in this one. Dribble handoff and the defense goes under the screen and Bradley pulls up for a long two. One thing to notice for Drummond in this play though is that he has fully become a real dastardly screener. A lot of people don't give him credit as a good screener because the Pistons have him slip screens a lot to take advantage of his quickness, but he has real guile in his screen setting. On that play Temple goes under the screen and Drummond is not going to be able to get a piece of him, so Drummond decides to turn and start his roll to the hoop just as Temple arrives, in essence setting a moving screen to take Temple even further out of the play.

Then later in the same game, they run this action.

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It isn't a dribble handoff as Drummond actually passes it over a little bit sooner, and Temple is overplaying it (and nearly gets a steal), the Defense is ready for Bradley and Temple recovers nicely while Zach Randolph cuts off a driving lane, but at the same time Tobias Harris pops to the three-point line following his screen and Bradley finds him for an open look.

Later in the quarter, the Pistons nail the final counter with rookie Bogdon Bogdonovic guarding Bradley.

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Once again, the set up is exactly the same as the other looks. Bradley is set up in the corner with a screen coming his way, but instead, he cuts right back to the hoop and Drummond zips a perfect pass right to Bradley for an easy layup. Other guys can also get in on the surprise cuts.

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Drummond and Bradley also just have really nice chemistry for those dribble handoffs and sometimes make simple little wrinkles on the fly to keep the defense off guard like here, where Steph Curry is so worried about keeping up with Bradley that Drummond holds onto the ball and after the screen Bradley turns right around to get an open three.

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Oh and that three-pointer by Tobias. This one.

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The Pistons are pretty good at hitting counters for that too, this time it isn't Andre who is passing through.

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Wary of Tobias Harris and his newfound effectiveness as a three-point shooter, in both plays the defense comes out to guard him while Andre slips through to the hoop. In both cases, the defense realizes their mistake and crashes down into the paint, but they are too late to stop Drummond.

With all of this opposing defenses have pretty well decided that it is imperative to stick with Pistons players when they are off the ball, especially Avery Bradley. But when defenses get too wary of the receivers and forget about Drummond, he will slip right through the defense for a layup.

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This is still a learning area for Drummond and there have been a few moments where he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. But it is important for him to hit those occasionally so that defenses don't load up too hard against the perimeter guys on these plays. There are not a ton of guys who can pick up their dribble around the free throw line (without any real momentum already going) and get to the hoop, and when he does it right it is killer. He gets into trouble when he tries to dribble too much, but there will be some growing pains and he is succeeding enough that the Pistons will live with the occasional play where he makes the wrong read.

How much staying power does the point center thing have?

A lot. At the very least it is a real weapon the Pistons have in their offense going forward. Regardless of anything else, Drummond is throwing some passes that are really tough. Go back and look at that pass to Tobias Harris for a dunk, that is a hard pass into a tight window. It is too early to make Drummond an honorary Gasol brother, but there are not a lot of guys who can make those kinds of passes, and even if it is at times awkward, he has some basic abilities to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket when the need arises.

There are two big questions going forwards for how effective Andre Drummond: Point Center, will be. The first one is how much of this is spontaneous and how much is already scripted out beforehand. The Pistons ran a pretty rigid offense last year, with Stan Van Gundy calling almost every play from the sideline, so it is possible that a good amount of the cuts and looks are ones that Drummond knew was coming already so it was just a matter of timing it right. Once again, even if that is the case, Drummond is throwing super accurate passes. However, if it is more play-calling and less improvisation then it limits how effective this will be as time goes on, especially against dialed in defenses late in games or in the playoffs. On the other hand, if Drummond is actually reading the defense on these plays then there isn't much you can do to effectively stop it consistently. Drummond is tall enough to see over defenses and he is whipping pinpoint accurate passes, and defenses only need to lean a bit too far one way and they are giving up an open look somewhere. There is a reason bigs who can pass are so valuable. For what its worth, Drummond has shown good abilities in situations that are clearly not scripted with quick thinking passes that bode well for the staying power. Whether it is in the half-court:

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Or with outlet passes (something he has always been pretty good at):

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The other big question going forwards for Andre is going to be how he does as defenses demand more and more out of him. Now that it is firmly on scouting reports of opposing teams they will have at least some sort of plan ready to try and handle these actions, and my guess is that they will try and make Andre put it on the floor more often than not. So if we go back to this play for instance.

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My guess is that as the season goes forwards, more teams will have whoever is in Blake Griffin or Austin Rivers' position here, come in a bit closer, and quicker, the moment Drummond starts to move to the hoop. This will leave a shooter open, but this is largely unexplored territory for Drummond, and teams are likely to make Drummond prove that he can make tougher plays in these situations, whether that is finishing tough layups through contact or seeing and diagnosing the defense in time to throw an accurate pass out to the open shooters. IF Drummond is able to do that sort of thing consistently, then it might be time to make him an honorary Gasol brother, there are simply very few big men who can do it.

So what is the verdict overall? Is this a good move for the Pistons?

Absolutely, even if Drummond struggles when defenses force him to make plays on the move, it will still require really crisp defensive execution to force that. It may not end up being a good crunch-time offense, but the Pistons have other options for that. It is a really effective tool to use throughout the course of a game and it keeps the defense off balance and worried because there are so many different ways that the Pistons can hurt you out of it.

There is also a basic strategical advantage of having your center be such a focal point like this. Go back and look at most of those plays, on most of them the opposing center is out and guarding Drummond pretty closely despite the distance from the hoop. Drummond is obviously not a threat to shoot from there, but the threat of a shooter coming rocketing over a Drummond screen means that bigs cannot just let him stand totally alone outside the paint. The Warriors made absolute hay with this with Andrew Bogut once upon a time and got so good at it that teams often had to defend Bogut as though he was a lethal shooter from 20 feet away. Obviously, the Pistons don't have shooters like the splash brothers so the effect will be less impressive, but it will still be there. With the bigs pulled away from the hoop it opens up the floor for other players and is a clever way to have a non-shooter still create some spacing in the offense.

Beyond that obvious advantages on the floor, it is undeniable that there is an advantage to get your big man involved in the offense like this. The post up experiment failed miserably with Drummond, but the Pistons (just like every team) still want to find a way to make sure their big man is getting to touch the ball and be a part of the offense to keep him motivated to go do all the dirty work he does. By using him as a facilitator from the elbows, the Pistons can do that without setting several possessions per game on fire by dumping it to Drummond in the post. This even affects people beyond just Drummond, teammates know that if they make good, hard, cuts to the hoop or for threes that Drummond can see them and can hit accurate passes. Guys are a lot more likely to play hard off the ball when they know they have a real chance at getting it, and playing with a passing big is one of the best ways to get that going.

All in all, Drummond is looking like he has started to really make the jump towards being the complete player that the Pistons hoped he would be, he is still the historically great rebounder and deadly roll man that he was when he entered the league, but now he is playing better and smarter defensively and a central part of the offense. It is important, when thinking about Drummond, to remember just how raw he was when he came into the league, and that he is still just 24 years old. He is not all the way there yet, but he has made great strides in the early season.

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