How Quickly Can Andre Drummond Become an Elite NBA Center?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2013

Oct 16, 2012; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (1) reacts during the first quarter against the Orlando Magic at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Drummond looks like the next great NBA center. 

But how quickly will he become elite? 

Coming out of Connecticut, Drummond was almost universally viewed as a prospect so raw you might mistake him for a big pile of sushi. Well, so much for that. He averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes with a PER of 21.6, asserting himself as an up-and-coming stud. 

The Detroit Pistons should be excited about his future, but how long will they have to wait before he becomes truly elite? 

Definition of Elite

First, what exactly does it mean to be "elite?"

It's a question that really finds itself at the center of this analysis, as it's a completely subjective term without an established definition or set of parameters. And it's one that must be remedied, because without setting forth a functional definition, determining how long it will take Drummond to become elite is foolhardy. 

In order to solve this problem, I turned to a few of B/R's NBA writers and asked their opinions. As you might expect, the answers I received helped advance the conversation, but they still didn't establish a firm definition.

Zach Buckley:

When I think of elite, I think of the best of the best.

My initial reaction was only guys in the 90th percentile. Assuming no more than one possible player from each team, that leaves only three truly elite talents at each position. Since the All-NBA teams are formed around a similarly selective group, I'd be comfortable limiting that designation to only the best three players at their position.

Stephen Babb

In my mind, I think of guys who have demonstrated All-Star recognition over time...not sure I'd describe just any old one-time selection as elite, but someone who gets invited back or at least continues earning all-league honors would qualify in my mind. An intriguing test-case to me would be someone like Tyson Chandler—no question he's elite on one end of the floor, but I have a tough time designating him "elite" in full.

It strikes me as a hard thing to define analytically...I kind of think it involves a gut check to some degree, case-by-case examination, etc. 

Babb went on to cite a court case (Jacobellis vs. Ohio, 1964) that used the phrase "I know it when I see it," although the judge in question clearly wasn't talking about Drummond being an elite center 29 years before the big man was born. 

Dan Favale

To me, elite big men have to be effective on both ends. Some sort of recognition has to be there too, even if it's just a previous subjective ranking that loops them in the top seven of their position. I think it's easy to measure where they're at presently a la statistics, but feel like their potential is more an interpretive issue, not so much a numerical science.

But I'd definitely say they need to be two-way savvy, even if it's just being a good passer (Noah) as opposed to scorer.

Grant Hughes

Weirdly, if we're taking "elite" to mean "among the very best," there's a theoretical way for a player to be so statistically spectacular on one end that he could totally suck on the other and still be in that category. But overall, I think a player has to be able to make a huge impact on both ends. To my mind, that limits the elite centers to Howard (two years ago), Marc Gasol and possibly Noah and Hibbert.

I also think there's something to be said for guys who can have major impacts in different environments, which is a good argument for Chandler.

Alright, so now we're working with something. My personal definition is going to become an amalgamation of all those different opinions. 

Among our unofficial poll of writers, we had support for "elite" being defined as top-three players and top-seven players. I'm going to simplify that and get rid of the subjective need to use a single number by simply stating that a player must generate some legitimate hype for an All-NBA team. Some years, that might be only four players. Others, it could be as many as nine or 10 who do so. 

As the NBA landscape changes, so too does "elite." It's an amorphous entity. 

Secondly, there was acknowledgement of two-way prowess, but also an admission that an elite skill on one end could trump a lack of excellence on the other. I'm going to add to that by saying that a player can qualify as "elite" if he either excels on both sides of the court or is a true standout on one and not a liability on the other.  

Where is Drummond Now? 

Let's just be perfectly clear right now.

Drummond is not currently an elite center. He's not even close. 

While the Detroit Pistons big man certainly has the potential to work his way up into that category of players—duh, or else the title of this piece would ask whether he can make it there, not how long it will take—he doesn't meet either of the two main criteria going into his second professional season. Don't be surprised, as precious few young big men ever have. 

Is Drummond currently good enough to receive All-NBA consideration? Not a chance. Those three spots belong to some combination of Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez

In fact, if I needed to win just one game right now (removing potential from the equation completely), I'd rather have a laundry list of centers: Howard, Gasol, Duncan, Hibbert, Noah, Cousins, Lopez, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Anderson Varejao, Andrew Bynum (maybe), Andrew Bogut, Omer Asik, Chris Bosh, Nikola Pekovic, Larry Sanders and Tyson Chandler. 

That should say it all, especially when you consider the fact that he's still an offensive liability. 

Develop an Elite Skill

It's pretty clear that this elite skill is going to be defense.

Drummond can dunk with a vengeance, but he's displayed much more potent tools when preventing the scoreboard operators from working than when he's trying to put points up himself. During his rookie season, the big man had no trouble functioning as an effective individual defender. 

However, it was learning how to parlay that into team defense that gave him trouble. 

In order to step into the zone that includes truly great defenders (a necessary one for Drummond to be in if he's going to be considered elite), a center has to be able to stop his own man, but he also has to know when to rotate and play effective help defense. 

According to Basketball-Reference, the Detroit Pistons allowed 108.4 points per 100 possessions when the Connecticut product was taking a seat on the pine. When he played, that number actually rose to 108.8.

Here's what's Beckley Mason had to say on the subject: 

Of course, Drummond is still a long, long ways from understanding team defensive concepts well enough to improve consistently defensive patch holes left by his weaker teammates the way Chandler does. Sure Drummond blocks and alters shots—sometimes from out of nowhere like a shark exploding out of the ocean with a seal in its jaws—however the Pistons don’t play better defense with him on the court.

But no one should expect 18 year olds to deliver on defense. Even a player like Kevin Garnett, who will likely be remembered as one of the great defenders in NBA history, didn’t make the Timberwolves an above average defense until his fourth season.

The signs are there for a quick turnaround in terms of team defense, though. Drummond has shown every physical tool you could ask for: elite jumping ability, good instincts, tremendous lateral quickness, a desire to prevent points, etc. 

It's just that those have only been reflected in his individual numbers so far. 

As shown by Synergy Sports (subscription required), Drummond allowed only 0.82 points per possession during the 2012-13 campaign. That was good enough for him to rank 87th among all qualified players, a number that no rookie should ever be ashamed of. 

To put that in perspective, Anthony Davis and Jonas Valanciunas, the other two big-name rookie centers, ranked 401st and 279th, respectively. 

Drummond was at his best whenever less movement was required. He didn't hedge out very far on pick-and-roll sets, which allowed him to stay in front of his man and hold roll men to 0.78 points per possession (his most impressive defensive situation). He similarly excelled against post-up players (surprising for an 18-year-old). 

However, his defense in isolation needs a lot of work, and that's where the primary improvement should come during his sophomore season. The main problem is that he stands up too straight and then gambles, both of which hinder his ability to use that tremendous lateral quickness. 

Take this play against Tristan Thompson, for example.

The Cleveland Cavaliers big man has the ball, and Drummond begins in perfect guarding position. There's no reason for him to feel particularly threatened right now, as the former Longhorn is a bit outside his comfortable shooting range right now.

Yet for some reason, Drummond bites on a between-the-legs hesitation dribble. He lunges to his right, apparently scared that Thompson will somehow beat him off the dribble. 

He should have just remained disciplined, because it's tougher for him to recover now. 

And the result is an easy reverse slam for Thompson as he blows by the defender. 

Plays like this happened too often for Drummond, and he must start displaying more discipline on this end of the court. Don't bite for fakes. Don't be afraid to rotate when the situation calls for it. Focus on every possession. 

Drummond has given every indication that he can become an elite defender, but he's not quite there yet. He will be soon enough if he can drop the bad habits. 


Don't be a Liability on Offense

The best model for Drummond to follow here is Tyson Chandler's. 

He doesn't need to develop into an offensive stud, one who can thrive in the post and carry a team with his scoring contributions. He just needs to become more than a liability, which means focusing on his strengths above all else. 

Below you can see the percentage of offense that came in certain situations last year for each of the two big men, courtesy of Synergy: 

Chandler is one of the most self-aware players in basketball. There's something to be said for his ability to recognize his weaknesses and steer clear of them. The New York Knicks big man understands that he's a great pick-and-roll threat, so that's just about all he does. 

Drummond could take a page out of his positional counterpart's book. 

Synergy shows that he scored 1.18 points per possession as a roll man, good for the No. 24 spot in the NBA. And yet he fit into that situation on only 17.9 percent of his possessions, which is far too few for a player so potent in that area and so raw in others. 

That's one key for Drummond. The other comes at the free-throw line.

It's rather problematic that—based on shots like that one up above—the charity stripe is more charitable to opponents than it is to Drummond. 

He shot only 37.1 percent on his (supposed) freebies, and that just isn't acceptable. He's giving up way too many easy points, and that's making him almost the definition of an offensive liability. If he can't play in crunch-time situations due to the inevitable hack-an-Andre strategies, he's not making a big enough impact. 

So, How Long Will that Take?  

How long has it typically taken elite big men to become defensive aces?

The answer varies, but it usually requires at least a few seasons of NBA experience in order to fully understand the nuances of team defense that are so necessary to earning DPOY consideration. 

To show you what I mean, here's a graph displaying the defensive development of today's best point-stopping big men.

As you travel along the x-axis to the right, the years are progressing, and a lower score on the y-axis is a positive. Y-axis scores are determined by subtracting the points per 100 possessions allowed by a team when the player in question is off the court from the points allowed when on the court such that a score of zero means no change and a score of minus-10 means that the player helps his team allow 10 fewer points per 100 possessions. 

There are a few key takeaways from that graph. 

  1. Looking at team points per possessions isn't the end-all, be-all. 
  2. Andrew Bogut's injury history has caused us to massively underrate his defense. 
  3. If a magical season of improvement exists, it's typically the fourth. 

I'm going to be a little more aggressive with Drummond's timetable here, though. Largely because he's starting at a point right in the middle of the pack on that graph and has displayed incredible potential. Additionally, his offense has shown signs that it can be more than just a non-liability. 

Drummond won't become an elite center in 2013-14. While he'll start showing signs of dominance, rawness will still be present, and he won't be able to make the necessary impact with his overall team defense. 

But that changes in 2014-15, when we start inserting Drummond into the "best center" conversation. 

Assuming he can stay healthy and on the career trajectory he's begun, that's when he becomes elite. He'll generate some serious buzz for one of the All-NBA teams, though center is getting deeper so that's becoming a less exclusive group, and his dominant defense won't be mitigated by his offensive game. 

Detroit fans have reason to be excited. Just remain patient for now, and you'll be rewarded. 


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