Coming out of college, Andre Drummond was supposed to be a project. A raw 19-year old center, he declared for the NBA Draft after one season at UConn, where he averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. Drummond was the No. 2 player in the country in high school, behind only Anthony Davis, but concerns about his NCAA production sent him sliding to the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 overall. After shooting 29.5 percent from the free-throw line, he seemed years away from helping an NBA team.
Instead, on a per-minute basis, he was one of the most productive players in the league as a rookie. The numbers are insane. Drummond had a PER of 21.6, 15th highest in the NBA. He was 2nd in effective field goal percentage (61 percent) and 3rd in total rebound percentage (21.2 percent). His block percentage (6.1 percent) and offensive rebounding rate (15.4 percent) last year would have been career highs for Dwight Howard! Headed into his second season, the sky is literally the limit.
As a rookie, Drummond played 20 minutes a night. If he can maintain that same level of production in the starting lineup, he will be one of the best players of the league. Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings have drawn most of the headlines this offseason, but Drummond’s progression is the real story for Detroit. A 20-year old-center with his talent can change the balance of power in the NBA. At 21, Dwight Howard was the best player on a playoff team. At 23, he lead the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.
Drummond is built like Howard, except much bigger. The NBA lists him at 6’10 270, but he measured out at 7’0 280 with a 7’6 wingspan at the Pre-Draft Combine. He is one of the biggest players to enter the NBA in the last 20 years. Only two active players -- Aaron Gray and DeSagana Diop -- came into the league bigger than him. Neither is ever going to take the ball between his legs in mid-air and dunk it, which Drummond did before his freshman season (0:34 in the video). That really shouldn’t be possible.
A player with his size should have a hard time moving his feet and getting off the ground. Drummond, who had a 34’ max vertical at the Combine, can do chin-ups at the rim. This is an actual quote from Jay Bilas in a telecast of a UConn game two years ago: “[Drummond] needs to wear a mouthguard because he gets his mouth right up into the rim. He’s going to knock some teeth out. Most guys dunk on the way down. He dunks on the way up.”
One of the biggest differences between the NCAA and the NBA is the sheer size of the centers. There are only a handful in college with the size to play the position at the next level. Most have to add at least 10-15 pounds of muscle to survive. For the first time in their lives, they are matching-up with players who are bigger and more athletic than them. Drummond is the exception that proves the rule. As a rookie, he was the biggest and most athletic center in the league.
The last rookie center you could say that about was Shaquille O'Neal, although you can’t really compare the two. Shaq was a relatively finished product, a 20-year-old with three seasons of college experience and an advanced low-post game. Drummond, in contrast, seemed to operate primarily on instinct last season, scoring on dump-offs, alley-oops and offensive rebounds. It was see the ball, dunk the ball. Given an angle to the rim, it was almost impossible to stop him.
Where Drummond has a chance to be really special is on the defensive end. A player with his size can change the game just by standing in front of the the rim. There’s no better example than Roy Hibbert, who uses his 7’2 280 frame to anchor the best defense in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers route all dribble penetration to him, confident that no one can consistently finish over the top of him. Drummond is longer and faster than Hibbert, although still years away from his level of defensive production.
High-level interior defense is as much mental as physical. The best anticipate, rather than react, to the offense. Marc Gasol isn’t the most athletic guy in the world, but his ability to quarterback the Memphis Grizzlies defense won him the Defensive Player of the Year Award. DeAndre Jordan and Javale McGee, in contrast, have all the physical tools, but neither has quite been able to put it all together. This is an area of Drummond’s development where the Pistons coaching staff could play a huge role.
An even more pressing issue is his free-throw shooting. He shot 37 percent from the line as a rookie. Ethan Strauss had an article about him shooting underhanded, but he could literally just fling the ball at the rim and do better. If he can’t improve, opposing coaches will go with Hack-A-Drummond. And while his inability to convert at the charity stripe didn’t affect his aggressiveness at the rim, it did it make it less useful. Even worse, the hard fouls can add up quickly.
Last season, Drummond missed 22 games with a stress fracture in his lower back. That’s a major concern, since super-sized centers, for whatever reason, have a hard time staying healthy. Yao Ming (7’6 310) retired at 31. Andrew Bynum (7’0 285) and Greg Oden (7’0 285) are one more knee injury from joining him. The good news is that Drummond’s frame carries all that extra weight well. If he had stopped growing at 6’8, he would have made an excellent NFL left tackle.
Next season, Detroit should have a fascinating team. Playing next to Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, two of the best passing big men in the NBA, could create a lot of easy finishes for Drummond. At the same time, the lack of frontcourt shooting could make it a tight squeeze in the paint. The Pistons will have four new starters, so it will take some time for the rotation to shake itself out and for Maurice Cheeks to (hopefully) figure out the right line-ups and combinations of players.
Either way, Detroit is a franchise on the rise. As long as Drummond stays healthy, he has as much physical upside as any player in the NBA. If he ever develops a post game, he could be unstoppable. However, even without one, he has a chance to be the best pick-and-roll finisher and rebounder in the league in a few years. In his prime, a player with Drummond’s gargantuan size will be an existential threat to any small-ball team. He’ll be a player worth watching for a long time to come.