Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond was at a crossroads of sorts last June after finishing an underwhelming 2016-17 season. A team expected to take a step from playoff qualifier to contender in Stan Van Gundy's third year as coach and czar instead found itself outside of the playoffs.
Rather than come up with creative ways for the Pistons to return to prominence, Van Gundy was listening to trade calls on draft night as Drummond's name had quietly been in the rumor mill for several weeks.
Drummond, whose free-throw struggles were a main reason why Van Gundy entertained trade conversations, wanted answers on draft night.
"He got upset with the trade rumors," Van Gundy told B/R. "What I told him at the time, it was the Sacramento trade rumor and it was the night of the draft, so I remember he was here for the draft. I told him, this one's not happening."
Sacramento offered a package involving Willie Cauley-Stein and Arron Afflalo, according to league sources. But the Pistons turned the deal down and it never reached a stage where they seriously considered moving him—for that package, anyway.
"In a sense, it feels like that. [But] it was the perfect way to see myself grow and develop," Drummond said when asked if he felt like his career had reached a crossroads.
That was the message conveyed to the Pistons big man, as a 10-3 start—good for second-best in the East—and a reinvigorated Drummond was the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
Picturing he and Van Gundy on the same page, putting the Pistons back in real playoff contention didn't seem likely on that June night.
Heck, Van Gundy didn't trust Drummond on the floor, even though he believed the big man could be a cornerstone for a contender.
"But I'm not telling you we would never trade you," Van Gundy recalled telling Drummond. "I was really honest with him. The reason was I don't know if I can count on you, if we can count on you to play hard every night, that was my thing."
Drummond was still one of the league's best rebounders and finishers at the rim, along with leading the NBA in defensive rating at 99 points per 100 possessions, but his performance—especially with pick-and-roll partner Reggie Jackson being shut down late in the year with nagging knee injuries—took a tumble as the Pistons disappeared from the playoff race and fell into the lottery for the seventh time in eight years.
Drummond didn't play up to his 2016 All-Star status, and he knew it. His name often came up when discussing rising young players, but guys like Joel Embiid (when he's available), Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic started to dominate those discussions.
Not to mention the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis, who are already challenging the old guard for supremacy, not waiting for their day to come.
"Absolutely, it wasn't a good feeling, not hearing my name," Drummond said. "To hear it come back is definitely a good feeling."
And the numbers—Drummond's five-year, $127 million extension he signed in July 2016 juxtaposed with his 38.6 percent shooting from the free-throw line—made him easy fodder across the board.
"I was really honest with him, and he understood what I was saying," Van Gundy said. "I don't think he necessarily agreed. But he understood what I was saying."
"In Andre's defense—and I think it's a real sign of maturity, too—his response wasn't, 'Hey, that's bullshit, and all that.' I don't think he agreed with me, but I think he took some time and thought about it."
The two rarely saw each other this past offseason, as Drummond was just recovering from nose surgery to repair a deviated septum and was soon headed to a quiet gym to repair his confidence and reclaim his love for the game.
"He felt like he was playing like [he was] in a prison," Idan Ravin, Drummond's trainer, said. Ravin, who has also trained the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, among others, initially worked with Drummond before the big man entered the 2012 draft out of Connecticut.
"Very regimented, restricted and in handcuffs."
Drummond admitted the "Hack-a-Dre" strategy sapped his energy and affected his approach.
"Absolutely. Who wants to go to the line unsure if they'll make the shot? That's never a fun feeling," Drummond said. "And it's not fun not playing aggressive, not attacking the basket because if you get fouled, you're not sure if you'll make the free throws. It took away my aggression."
He didn't run away from the topic. Drummond knew for all of his strengths, for all of the questions critics had that he answered resoundingly, it always comes back to his free throws.
"It's been held over my head since I came into the league," Drummond said. "I think that's something I harped on myself. People are gonna have something negative to say, and that's one of the biggest things people said about me, was my free-throw shooting."
Those passive moments are few and far between now, as Drummond is still rebounding at a league-leading pace (15.7) and is shooting free throws at a rate that's almost hard to believe. After his 14-of-16 masterpiece from the line against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 3, Drummond's free-throw clip was at 77.8 percent.
"I don't have any plans of taking him out, even if somebody starts [intentionally fouling him]," Van Gundy said. "I think it's for real. That changes our whole ability to coach in games, keeping him on the floor. I totally believe in him. I'm very confident in him. One of the things that's helped him a lot, he has a greater confidence as a player, just knowing he can make free throws."
Drummond is lighter and quicker now, having dropped 30 pounds over the summer, but his power and ferociousness is still there. Look no further than his breathtaking finish against the Pacers on Nov. 8, which came during Detroit's current five-game winning streak.
"I've spent a lot of time this summer on the conditioning aspect of my game," Drummond said. "I didn't really pick up a basketball until July. I spent three months of my summer just running."
After he shaved his body down to 285 pounds, the reconstruction of his free-throw form was taking place while the building the Pistons reside in today, Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, was going through its finishing touches.
"I took it back to the basics," Drummond said. "I listened to so many people throughout my years of playing, it took me off my path. I went back to my trainers I used when I was growing up and I found my touch again."
It wasn't an overnight transformation. It was gradual and likely frustrating at times. But the prospect of being traded or even forgotten in this recent NBA talent boon didn't sit well with Drummond.
"It was very challenging. Hundreds of hours. I give Dre all the credit in the world," Ravin said. "It was very slow. It took time. In the beginning, it was not really good. Then it went to, hmmm, okay. Then it went to better than okay. And then it went to better, better. It was a progression. He was very committed.
"What I saw this summer was extraordinary. Extraordinary, extraordinary. To the rest of the world, it's amazing. To me, I expect more because I believe in him so much. He can be the best player in the world."
Ravin said Drummond had to "eliminate the clutter," the voices in his head or random people making suggestions about his form, even those telling him to shoot underhanded.
So aside from two people—neither of them named Van Gundy—Drummond didn't allow anyone to see him working out. He was intent on showing up to training camp ready to reclaim a spot he relinquished too easily in one season.
"Nobody knew anything until they saw me," Drummond said. "My main thing after my surgery was just to go off the radar. Not let anybody see what I was doing. I didn't record anything, never said anything to anybody. For all everybody knew, I was chilling, in their eyes.
"Everybody thought I was making music and chilling. When I came back from the summer, they were like, 'Who the f--k is this dude?'"
Van Gundy noticed it late in the summer but wasn't sure if it would carry into the season.
"My approach to the game [changed]," Drummond said. "Just taking it a little more serious, being more mature about my approach to basketball. Me being 24. Sixth year in the league, having a lot of years under my belt. Really figuring out what needs to be done to put my team in a winning situation."
The Pistons' record, anchored by Drummond's now-steady play and newfound role as an offensive hub—he's averaging a career-high 3.2 assists per game—looks sustainable. Van Gundy said Drummond snaps himself out of those brooding moments, out of frustration more quickly than he's ever done.
Instead of Drummond being a traditional post player, a strategy that wasn't efficient or effective, Van Gundy has reshaped the offense into being more motion-based. Drummond is on the move more as opposed to simply being a screener and rim-runner.
It has resulted in the Pistons being one of two teams in the top 10 of offensive and defensive rating (the Golden State Warriors being the other). Drummond's defensive rating of 97 points per 100 possessions is a mark of his focus and Van Gundy's schemes fitting the personnel.
"I think consistently, he's played a lot harder defensively," Van Gundy told B/R. "He's played with more energy offensively, he's been very unselfish, and there seems to be a real growing maturity with him that he's just more consistent in what he does."
So when Van Gundy puts his team president hat on, it's far easier to craft a vision when the centerpiece is etched in cement as opposed to one who can be had for the right price.
Tobias Harris can settle in as an all-around scorer, Stanley Johnson and Avery Bradley can be dogged defenders. If Jackson can be Mr. Fourth Quarter, that makes the Pistons more than an afterthought in the East.
It gives them a foundation for a contender, one that starts with Drummond.
"I don't think there's any doubt when a guy of Andre's talent has really bought in and is playing hard and really focused and playing effectively and efficiently that it makes it a lot easier to build the rest of this thing," Van Gundy said. "It's been a different thing with Andre. You're able to take an approach of coaching and talking to him and teaching. I don't feel like I have to spend as much time trying to push him and get him to play."
And if winning is the measuring stick, how can Drummond's name not be in the larger conversations, where the word "Valuable" sits in the middle?
"Right now, I'm playing very good basketball. Very good basketball," Drummond said. "Hopefully my name is in the talks for that. Who wouldn't want to be in the talks for MVP? So I'm gonna keep winning games and putting my team in great situations."