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Stan Van Gundy, Pistons Need Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Step Up

With one major exception, Stan Van Gundy has done everything he can to erase the Joe Dumars era at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

That hasn’t been easy – Dumars was with the organization for over 30 years, winning two championships as a player and one as a general manager – but by the time he departed in 2014, the franchise was a mess.

Van Gundy announced on his first day that he planned to build his team around Dumars’s last great success – Andre Drummond.

The rest of the roster has been sent packing over the last year, with two guys still hanging on. Brandon Jennings is still recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury, but when he gets back, he’ll have Reggie Jackson and his $80 million contract blocking his way at point guard. It’s widely expected that, as soon as Jennings shows he’s healthy, he’ll be moved in a trade.

That makes Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the last man standing, and unlike all of his 2013-14 teammates other than Drummond, he might hang around for a while.

Caldwell-Pope was Dumars’s last first-round draft pick, and he was instantly unpopular with Pistons fans. While they had nothing against the Georgia shooting guard, they were furious that, badly needing a point guard, Dumars had passed on the consensus college player of the year, Michigan All-American Trey Burke.

Dumars filled the point-guard role by trading for Jennings, a move that turned out to give the Bucks an All-Star in Brandon Knight and an up-and-coming star in Khris Middleton, but much of the draft criticism died down when Burke’s NBA career got off to a slow start in Utah.

To this day, it’s hard to say if Dumars made the right decision. After two seasons, neither player has exactly lit the league on fire. Burke is a much better ball handler, as you’d expect from a point guard, but he would’ve never started over Jennings or Jackson.

Caldwell-Pope is a better defender, but has the minor problem of being a perimeter player who can’t really shoot. His career field goal percentage is 39.9 percent, and he doesn’t finish well at the rim, nor does he have a strong mid-range jumper.

For most coaches, that would be a disaster. For Van Gundy, though, it just might work. In his system, the shooting guard doesn’t need to be a player like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. The offense is designed to spread the floor and leave as much space as possible for Jackson and Drummond to run pick-and-rolls all night.

That’s the reason Van Gundy let a potential All-Star walk away in Greg Monroe, and was more than happy to replace him with a stretch power forward in Ersan Ilyasova. Monroe has a ton of ability, but that doesn’t extend to shooting range, and he was in the way when Jackson and Drummond got to work. The duo performed significantly better with backup Anthony Tolliver on the floor than with Monroe.

In that offensive scheme, Caldwell-Pope has one job. Stand behind the three-point line, and if Jackson or Drummond kicks the ball out, knock down the shot. That’s something he can do. His 34.5 three-point percentage last season was only a little below the league average of 35 percent, and he’s still only 22 years old.

He’s spent the offseason working on his ball handling, which would add a dimension against teams that pressure the Pistons, but there’s still one problem that he badly needs to fix.

Last season, Pope averaged 15.5 points and hit 39.4 percent of his three-pointers at the Palace – numbers that would thrill Van Gundy if he put them up in 2015-16. The problem was on the road, where he averaged 9.9 points and 28.0 percent from behind the arc.

“He’s got to get it figured out,” Van Gundy said in frustration after one road loss last season. “We can’t go long term with a starting shooting guard who only plays half your games.”

There’s a good chance that it started out as a fluke – he didn’t show the same tendency as a rookie – and ended up with a 21-year-old pressing to make perfect shots in road games and making things worse for himself. If it’s that simple, and it doesn’t continue into this season, Caldwell-Pope could play a crucial role in ending Detroit’s endless playoff drought.

If it doesn’t change, or if the road woes start impacting his play at home, both he and Van Gundy are in trouble. The only other shooting guard the Pistons could use is Jodie Meeks, and he struggled with his shot last year and is a serious defensive liability – something that won’t work in Van Gundy’s system.

Caldwell-Pope isn’t going to be a star, but unlike all of the Dumars players who Van Gundy has moved out of the organization, he does have a role to play. He just needs to grab it.

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