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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needs to take a step forward

AP Photo/Duane Burleson
AP Photo/Duane Burleson

The Detroit Pistons became a trendy pick to be a top four or five team in the Eastern Conference in a hurry this offseason.

Ish Smith is a lightning quick passing point guard to backup Reggie Jackson. Jon Leuer is an underrated stretch big man who’s more athletic and capable of driving down the lane than he most give him credit for.

Henry Ellenson is another talented, floor spacing big man from this year’s draft who could develop into a nice role player. Stanley Johnson, probably even more confident that he can lock up LeBron James now, has obvious upside entering his sophomore year as a strong, physical defensive prospect.

On top of that, Detroit is primed to destroy the world and “build the f***ing wall!” that Stan Van Gundy wants with the behemoth that is Boban Marjanovic.

There’s a lot going for the Pistons, and Tobias Harris was strong for them after arriving in February, averaging 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game over the end of the season with a 37.5 three-point shot. Harris’ efficiency from deep made him a particular value, a power forward who pairs well with Andre Drummond.

Reggie Jackson, the Pistons’ offensive leader, underwent platelet-rich plasma treatment on his right thumb and left knee, quieting some of the initial excitement. Aaron McMann of MLive reported that late November would be the most optimistic return date and that Jackson will likely be out until early December.

All the other strengths of this team and the double-double dominance of Drummond aside, this sets the stage perfectly for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to prove himself. To show he can take another step forward as a player, an offensive leader at times, and do just that in a contract year that should provide him with even more motivation.

Some have dubbed KCP, rather automatically, as a three-and-d’ guy.

The only thing is that Caldwell-Pope doesn’t fully have the “three” part down.

Defensively, he’s great. Along with the fact that he’s highly conditioned to run non-stop, he reads his opponent’s drives, fakes and changes of direction so well. He’s catlike in terms of agility, shifting around screens, tailing his man off the ball, and cutting off drives to the basket, even against explosive point guards.

We know that KCP can defend, though. And we know he can score reasonably well, too. He’s athletic, can handle the ball fairly well to set up the offense, shot 47.6 percent from 10-15 feet whenever he’d cut inside the arc and made a career-high 63.9 percent of his shots within two feet last year.

Jan. 27, 2016 - Detroit, MI, USA - The Detroit Pistons' Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, left, works off a screen from teammate Andre Drummond against the Philadelphia 76ers' Isaiah Canaan, right, during the first half at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 (Photo by Kimberly P. Mitchell/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Kimberly P. Mitchell/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

In fact, there was a host of career-highs across the board for Caldwell-Pope last season, such as points per game (14.5), field goal percentage (42), assists (1.8), rebounds (3.7), steals (1.4) and PER (12.4).

The drop off (although there wasn’t a major “high” to descend from) was in his three-point shooting, with his makes per game falling from 1.9 at a 34.5 percent rate in 2014-15 to 1.5 and 30.9 percent last season.

He does have a smooth release, though, and with his quickness and fairly high jump on his shot, he can create his own looks. Yet, hovering just over 30 percent with that many makes doesn’t warrant consideration as a great three-point threat or as the fully-balanced owner of the three-and-d’ label.

This need for improvement comes for several reasons, and not just to simply say “so the player can get better.”

Of course, it will help KCP. Being able to hit threes more efficiently gives him more points and ensures his defender has to press him tightly at the perimeter, opening up more opportunity for him to attack off the dribble.

However, the real reason KCP needs to strive for some improvement and three-point development lies in Jackson’s injury, and the impact that will have on Detroit’s start to the season. They need more perimeter scoring from elsewhere, and it won’t be Jackson’s replacement Ish Smith.

The middle of the Eastern Conference, from the third seed to the eighth seed probably, is going to be close, and not many wins will separate the middle pack of playoff teams.

Jackson’s absence could wind up having a real impact on the Pistons’ standing at the end of the season if they suffer a handful more losses through November and the start of December. They have some tough opponents, too, facing the Spurs, Cavaliers, Clippers (twice) and Celtics (twice) in November.

On top of that, there’s the hit to their shooting that Jackson’s absence will lead to (he’s not an elite three-point marksman either, but poses a threat at 35.3 percent and can attack off the dribble to create unlike others on the roster).

Freshly signed Beno Udrih will serve as the new backup point guard. He should be fine in a small role. But he’s struggled to find a role in recent years, which is why he hasn’t stayed with one team. He has been less than stellar from three-point range with 0.9 makes per 36 minutes at a 34.9 percent rate for his career.

Then, of course, there’s Ish Smith, sitting at just 0.6 makes per 36 minutes at a 29.8 percent clip for his career. He only made 56 last season, and as much as his speed and pass-first style will suit the Pistons to run an offense around Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls, it does cause some problems.

For a start, it gives defenses far more opportunity to go under the screen on those pick-and-rolls and clog the paint, cutting off Smith’s lanes to drive and leaving less space for Drummond at times.

Caldwell-Pope won’t be running the offense, but it will help if he can take the ball at times to mix the Pistons’ attack. More to the point, when Smith is buzzing around the floor, KCP will stretch defenses and create space to help things click if he’s reliable.

To help Detroit across the board offensively, improve another element of his two-way game and raise his value in the process for free agency next summer, this initial start to the season is a great time for Caldwell-Pope to step up.

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