Under normal circumstances, I would dismiss the comparisons of a second-year NBA big man to the likes of Hall of Famers Bob Lanier and Willis Reed as so much horsepucky, figuring it to be spewed by an over-exuberant fan who might never have seen Lanier or Reed play a single minute.
I might roll my eyes and lightly smirk at the notion of the Pistons’ Greg Monroe, after just two NBA seasons, having anything more in common with Lanier and Reed other than all three of them are left-handed.
Unless the one making the comparison is Ray Scott.
If you’d ever like to go NBA brain-picking, you could do a whole lot worse than to talk to Scott, who some around town remember as a one time NBA Coach of the Year with the Pistons, but who fewer remember as being one of the best and most consistent big men of his time, playing for the Pistons in the 1960s. Today Scott, 73, is as close to a basketball Yoda as you’ll find in this town.
Scott was a leaping, rebounding, and scoring big man out of Portland University, but he was really a Philadelphia kid. The Pistons nabbed him fourth overall in the 1961 draft, and for most of the decade Scott produced double-doubles (points and rebounds) every night like a Pez dispenser.
One year for the Pistons, Scott averaged 13.5 boards a game, snatching basketballs away from the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Jerry Lucas while the rest of his teammates fought gamely but usually ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
That was Pistons basketball in Scott’s day—the losses piled up like dishes in the kitchen of a diner during the lunch rush.
So when Ray Scott says Greg Monroe reminds him of Willis Reed and Bob Lanier, you ought to listen, because Ray played against the former and coached the latter.
Ray was waxing the art of big man play in the NBA last week on “The Knee Jerks,” the weekly podcast I co-host with Big Al Beaton. Ray, always the gentleman, was on hand to help us celebrate our third anniversary of doing the show.
It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.
“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.
For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.
Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.
It was already galling to hear Ray make the comparisons to Reed and Lanier—until you thought of how many nights Scott and Reed jostled under the boards at Cobo Arena or Madison Square Garden, leaning against one another, waving a hand in each other’s face. And then you just had to think of all the practice sessions with Scott the coach and Lanier the player from 1972-76, when Ray coached the Pistons and Lanier was depositing those 10-foot hook shots over the likes of Kareem and Nate Thurmond and Dave Cowens.
Monroe survived a drama-filled rookie season with the Pistons in 2010-11 under the disrespected coach John Kuester. The 6’10” center/power forward didn’t get off the bench much in the first couple weeks of the season, but by the end of it, Monroe was starting and showing the tender skills that made him attractive to president Joe Dumars.
Year two was when Monroe took his giant leap for mankind.
The numbers shot up, from 9.4 points/7.5 rebounds per game to 15.4/9.7. Even the free throw percentage went way up, from .622 to .739. The confidence soared with the numbers. The team didn’t exactly soar with Monroe, but a 21-21 finish after a 4-20 start was something to build on for next season.
Entering Year three, it’s not crazy talk to call Greg Monroe one of the Pistons’ leaders—on and off the court.
Ah, but there is one area in which Monroe gets dogged a little—a criticism that has followed him like a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe.
It’s whispered that he’s not as tough as an NBA big man should be. That there’s a mean streak that Monroe simply doesn’t possess.
Scott, on our show, said that Reed was “as mean as a snake.” Lanier, the coach said, had a toughness that was different than Reed’s but manifested itself in how Bob played through pain and through the turmoil that sometimes beset the Pistons in the 1970s.
It’s unclear, this early in Monroe’s career, whether he’ll develop that nasty edge that is required to be a beast to play against on a nightly basis. Scott, for example, used “easy going” in describing Monroe.
But the strides made in Year Two, combined with the flashes that rookie point guard Brandon Knight showed, makes one wonder if the Pistons have themselves an inside-outside combo in the making not seen since—dare we say it—Scott was coaching Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
“I like the way (Monroe) goes about his business,” Scott told us this week. “He is easy going but he works very hard and that’s how you show great improvement, as he did this past season.”
Reed’s watershed moment was in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, when he limped onto the Madison Square Garden floor on one leg thanks to a torn thigh muscle, gamely starting against the Los Angeles Lakers and nailing a couple of mid-range jumpers. He only played a few minutes, but his mere presence inspired his teammates to a blowout win for the championship.
Lanier came into the NBA on one leg as well. The St. Bonaventure grad had his leg in traction when the Pistons drafted him in the first round in 1970, the after effects of a nasty knee injury suffered in the 1970 NCAA Tournament.
“Bob had to work hard on a day-to-day basis just on conditioning alone,” Scott recalled.
For 10 seasons Lanier battled his brittle knees, Pistons upheaval and bemusing coaches before being liberated via a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1980. Unlike Reed, however, Lanier never achieved his ultimate goal of an NBA championship, though he came close with the Bucks a couple of times.
Greg Monroe’s greatest moment as a Piston has yet to be realized. Wondering what it might be is enough to warm the cockles of a fan’s heart.
So there you have it. Greg Monroe, just two years into his NBA career, reminds Detroit’s basketball Yoda of a pair of Hall of Fame centers.
Ray Scott is about the only fellow in town who can get away with such hogwash.
Because he’s probably right.
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