More than a Warm-Up.
The time on the clock above the basket in Detroit signals there are about 15 minutes until the game starts when the Pistons begins heading out the tunnel. The team starts spreading out on the floor, picking out the spots they want to work on before they play the Philadelphia 76ers. Well, all of them get to decide for themselves except for one. Second-year big man Andre Drummond doesn’t get a choice. While each of his teammates has the freedom to roam around the hardwood handpicking which spots they feel will be the most productive for them to get into a groove, the term “man in the middle” takes a more literal meaning for Andre in this moment. He’s stuck shooting free throws — a necessary practice — leaving the other Pistons swarming around him.
This specific moment takes on a larger symbolic meaning for Detroit and their athletic center. While there is a reason he is at the free throw line, Andre being placed at the center of his teammates is fitting for deeper reasons. Drummond is the most important piece to this organization going forward, with his development being the number one priority of the organization. And rightfully so, against the Sixers yesterday Andre’s put up an eye-popping stat line of 31 points, 19 rebounds, 6 steals, and 2 blocks. Such numbers are historical levels that many players are incapable of.
For the Big Penguin — a nickname based on his penguin movie obsession — his play quality stretches well beyond the box score on most nights. Even when Andre puts up stat-lines that only Hakeem could rival, the optical value of his game far exceeds the numerical tallies. When a center has the ability steal the ball in opposing territory and dribble at a speed where no opposing player can catch him, it makes the creative glands in your brain salivate. The scariest part about it is the fact that during the play, he warded off a hard foul by Evan Turner when he braced for contact and still finished the play with an underhand scooping lay-up. A play that LeBron often made memories with in Cleveland, but the brain has to remind that this is in fact a center. The strength is to be expected, but the speed and grace at the position is a rarity for any man at his size.
That isn’t the only reason this pregame is symbolic though. Drummond is trapped at the free throw line before the game. There is no doubt that practicing that part of the game is what is best for the UConn product, but also shows the ball-and-chain attached to his abilities. He was shooting 28.6% from the line before playing Philadelphia, and a normally terrible 7-18 day Sunday actually improved that number.
He comes with the classic Achilles’ heel that every hyper-athletic center has had in their career. Like a disease passed down through a family by genetics, this player type has been plagued with the problem even back when Bill Russell was patrolling the paint. Yet while his struggles are comparable, they come in a more magnified degree. His career 35.6% pales even to Ben Wallace’s atrocious 41.4% mark.
No matter what Drummond achieves on the basketball court, he will eternally be shackled to his terrible foul shooting. Even during his career day, the talk soon swirled to to Hack-A-Drummond and the ugly misses for a part of the game that is typically viewed as a reward. If he was able to make a few more of those shots and it wasn’t necessary to take him off the court to counter this strategy, who knows what could have become of that game? The imagination stretches to the possibility of a 40-20 game, and that kind of potential always encapsulates the viewers.
The fact that those viewers see free throws as a skill over a talent causes the questions to swirl more abundantly. A player that is a less privileged athlete gets a pass on their inabilities, because asking them to magically jump higher or run faster seems silly. Yet with foul shots, there is a belief that a player will improve if they practice enough. Drummond’s supporters have a belief that eventually more attempts will snap the net, and his detractors think that it is more proof he should be in the gym more often practicing the shot. The confidence should come in any situation if he keeps working on it, and that is the biggest part of his trap.
The potential is a blessing and a curse. Just because he is freshly turned twenty and bends the mind of onlookers, it is assumed he has all the time in the world to make it right. Yet when everything else comes so easy a young big man, the confidence of knocking down a shot that other’s believe as easy has been historically hard. Maybe it takes more talent than we thought, or it could possibly be because of the frustrations that come from a talented being not being able to fill the one crack in their armor. Regardless of which reason, the words “missed free throws” will eternally follow Andre like the terrible curse.
For a man who is locked onto the free throw line. He keeps missing free throws with a robotic, wrist-heavy motion with the belief that one day they begin to start falling at a high rate. The pre-game warm-up ends however, and the Pistons intro video ends with a shot that etches into the mind effortlessly. Andre Drummond holds two basketballs with his back turned to the camera. His development is monumental for the organization to achieve some of the past success they once had, regardless if the plague of the foul shot is lifted or not.