The Detroit Pistons didn’t get the look at rookie Michael Gbinije that they wanted this summer.
However, he was still able to give Stan Van Gundy something to watch.
Van Gundy picked Gbinije with the 49th pick after a college career that started at Duke and ended at Syracuse. At 6’7”, he’s going to be fighting for a spot at the end of the bench, and he’s going to have to do it with his versatility. He can play small forward and shooting guard, but moved to the point last season to help the Orangemen on a surprising run to the Final Four.
As a second-round choice on a crowded roster, his best chance to impress Van Gundy would be a strong performance in the Orlando segment of the NBA’s Summer League. In Detroit’s opener -0 an 81-49 rout of the Knicks — Gbinije played 33 minutes and finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists as opposed to just one turnover.
There were issues — he shot 3-12 from the floor, missing eight of 10 three-pointers — but it was a start with some promise.
Unfortunately, a sprained ankle meant it was also the end of his Summer League campaign. The Pistons went on to the championship game, losing to Orlando White in overtime, but Gbinije was only able to watch from the sidelines.
For most rookies, that would have been the end of organized hoops for the summer, and the end of his shot to impress Pistons brass before the beginning of training camp. That would have been a serious setback for any first-year player, but especially one who will have to develop quickly. Because he played four years in college in addition to sitting out a season after transferring from Duke to Syracuse, Gbinije was already 24 before signing his first NBA contract.
However, Gbinije had another summer tournament — this one on a much bigger stage than July in Orlando. Like Pistons teammate Aron Baynes, he headed to Rio in August to play in the Summer Olympics.
The strange journey had started a year earlier, when he was invited to play in AfroBasket 2015 for Nigeria — the birthplace of his father. Gbinije had never even been to the country, but he donned their green uniforms in Tunisia and helped lead them to their first continental championship. The 74-65 victory over favored Angola had a second prize, though — an automatic berth in the Rio Olympics.
The Tigers got a break before the tournament started — they drew into Group B and avoided a probable rout by the United States. They were still major underdogs, though, with a roster whose biggest star was former NBA journeyman Ike Diogu.
Things got off to a rough start, as Nigeria was blown off the floor by the veteran Argentinians, losing 94-66. Gbinije had six points in 29 minutes, and was overwhelmed by NBA veterans Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino.
His effort didn’t impress coach Will Voight, who promptly benched Gbinije for Nigeria’s second group game — a 89-80 loss to Lithuania.
Two days later, he was back in the lineup against Spain, the eventual bronze medalists. He didn’t start, as he had against Argentina, but he scored seven points in 16 minutes. In what could have been the biggest win in national team history, the Tigers led 66-65 after three quarters before losing by eight.
An upset win didn’t take long to come by, though. Just 48 hours after losing to the team that would win bronze, the Nigerians outscored Croatia 49-28 in the second and third quarters. They went into the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead and were never threatened down the stretch, winning 90-76.
Gbinije played a key role off the bench, scoring eight points in 17 minutes, including two key three-pointers as the Tigers pulled away from one of the tournament favorites. He also added three assists and three rebounds without turning the ball over.
So, in 33 minutes against the two top-seeded teams in Group B, he scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including hitting all three of his three-pointers. He added five rebounds and four assists, all without a turnover.
Having already been eliminated from medal contention, Nigeria’s last group game was a bad loss to the host nation. By that point, though, Gbinije had gotten 84 minutes of competitive action on film for the coaches in Detroit. He shot 56.2 percent from the floor, including 42.9 percent from behind the line, and had eight assists against two turnovers.
Will that help him make the Pistons? Probably not. After all, they’ve seen plenty of film from his college career, and he wasn’t playing in Van Gundy’s system like he would have in Summer League. However, it means he’ll be coming into training camp in game shape with the confidence of having played well on another big stage.