Up to Speed
When the Pistons practiced on the campus of Georgetown University between the Washington and New Orleans legs of their three-game road trek that concludes Sunday at San Antonio, it was Calderon’s third practice with the Pistons since coming in trade in late January but needing to wait five days for visa issues to be resolved.
Six hours after government hurdles were cleared, Calderon was in the starting lineup at Madison Square Garden. A game-heavy schedule and the All-Star break further limited Calderon’s opportunity to practice, which means game days – from the hour-long morning shootarounds to the games themselves – have been used for on-the-fly acclimation: Calderon to his teammates and them to him.
Things appear to be trending in the right direction. Over the past two games – or since Brandon Knight returned from a three-game injury absence – Calderon has compiled 29 assists against just four turnovers and Knight and Greg Monroe have averaged 27 and 26.5 points.
“You know he’s looking to set people up all the time,” Monroe said. “He’s going to make the right play most of the time. There’s not that much to learn – what you see is what you get. He’s a very smart player. He knows how to manufacture some shots as opposed to getting in our normal offense.”
In 13 games, Calderon is averaging 7.5 assists and 1.8 turnovers. He’s absorbed Lawrence Frank’s playbook without difficulty, but the process of learning the strengths and preferences of the shooters around him can only be completed over time. But everybody is happy to shoot dunks and layups, and Calderon’s vision and sense of anticipation for how impromptu plays are going to develop has led to many easy baskets for both Monroe and Knight on this road trip.
Calderon and Monroe, in separate conversations, both said it will be practice time that increases the likelihood of more such plays over the season’s final quarter.
“We’ve had great chemistry so far,” Calderon said. “But it’s going to take time. It’s tough to do it in just a few games. Practice time is really important, too, so we can figure out things. It’s tough.”
Calderon is big on communication, so he’s taken every opportunity available to pull teammates aside and discuss strategy and solicit their input.
“We talk about it all the time in games – it’s something we’re going to get better at,” Monroe said. “(Thursday) was the third practice with us. We’re still learning each other. Practice is really where you get to know your teammates and get a feel for them. We’re starting to get more practices now. He’s starting to get more comfortable with all the players on the court. We’ll just continue to get better together.”
“The game, there’s so much pressure on each moment,” Frank said. “In practice, you get rep after rep after rep after rep – you can really just hone in on certain different things, whether it’s angles or separation on rolls or pops or getting a feel for different plays. Any time you can an acquisition in the middle of the year, you just have to accelerate the process and take advantage of all that time that you have.”
While Calderon adjusts to a new system and a new set of finishers for his setups, Knight’s adjustment is no less challenging – going from being the primary ballhandler to playing off the ball to start most possessions. Early returns are favorable. Knight seems to have taken easily to the art of movement off the ball, using screens to free himself for shots and appreciating that Calderon will deliver the ball on time and on target so there is no wasted time or motion in catching and shooting in one continuous arc.
“There’s an adjustment, but it’s one of those things. If you only see yourself in one way, you’re getting in your own way,” Frank said. “This league is constantly changing. There’s a handful of teams that play two point guards. To me, who wouldn’t want to play with a pass-first player in Jose.”
Frank has tweaked the offense to take advantage of not just Calderon’s ability to deliver timely, pinpoint passes, but Knight’s energy level. Running Knight off a series of screens not only serves the Pistons’ offensive purposes, Frank said, but carries a defensive benefit, as well.
“Brandon has a lot of energy, so you have to use that,” he said. “We run him off a lot of screens, not only to try to get him or his teammates a shot, but also to wear out the opposing player. As he continues to develop, he’ll figure different things out.”
Frank was encouraged by the fact that Knight followed up his career-best night at Washington with another strong game at New Orleans – and especially because it didn’t start out particularly well for Knight.
“It’s always good for your psyche and confidence to be able to have success when you’re trying something new,” Frank said of Knight’s conversion. “Many times it takes time.”
Frank has been struck by the variety in Knight’s scoring since moving over one spot – scoring in transition, off of screens and attacking the basket.
“When you have that balance, you don’t just have to rely on one part of your game,” he said. “That diversity helps. All these things help in terms of giving you a little bit of a blueprint.”
It’s a blueprint they’ve had to devise on the go. Makes you wonder where it will carry them once it all becomes second nature to them.