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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looking for better second act

The 2013-14 Detroit Pistons season was an unmitigated tire fire, and one of the chief victims of the blaze was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s rookie season.  After a surprising late rise in his draft stock, Caldwell-Pope was selected 8th. Even in a historically weak draft class, for much of the season, it looked like he may have been at reach at that selection.

Drafted as a 3&D-type wing, Caldwell-Pope largely took the right shots as a rookie, with more than 2 out of every 3 attempts coming either at the rim or from 3, per basketball-reference. Having limited himself to these high value shot locations, he then proceeded to simply not make shots:

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KCP shot 31.9% from 3, including a ghastly 28.6% above the break. He wasn’t particularly good at getting to the free throw line (a strength of his entering the draft) nor was he an adroit finisher at the rim. And aside from scoring, he just didn’t do much on the court, averaging only 2 rebounds and .7 assists per game. There were some bright spots, as he picked up 1.7 steals/36 minutes, indicative to a degree of his defensive potential. Further, he had the league’s lowest turnover rate. But that low turnover rate is just another representation of his overall lack of offensive involvement, what with his 13.9% Usage Rate. Per NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data, KCP averaged fewer than 1 assist opportunity per 20 offensive possessions, less than half the league average for wing players.

In a word, he looked overmatched at the NBA level. Hesitant to shoot, and unable to create for himself or others. Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault. Detroit was an unbalanced mess on offense, the ill-fitting talent poorly served by unimaginative coaching. Nevertheless, KCP’s game needed to grow substantially for him to be a viable rotation piece.

Moving into 2014-15, the surroundings have been upgraded. Certainly, Stan Van Gundy is a coach more likely able to mesh the Pistons’ pieces together than were either Mo Cheeks or John Loyer. Detroit’s offseason focus on acquiring shooting (even if at inflated prices) should help the balance as well.

On judging on Orlando Summer League, Caldwell-Pope has done more than his part to improve this summer. In Orlando, KCP was dominant, averaging 24 points, 7.4 rebounds, and almost 2 steals per contest. He accomplished this not by riding a particularly hot shooting streak (in fact, he hit only 33% of his 3s in Orlando, shooting 40.9% overall), but rather showing a  much more rounded game than the timid, corner-3 hunting performance of his rookie year.

He executed the pick-and-roll with skill and patience. He attacked on the break and in semi-transition on the way to averaging 8 free throw attempts per game. In the half-court he regularly attacked defenders on closeouts as opposed to last season when he either settled for contested jumpers or more often simply reversed the ball rather than exploiting what should be an advantageous situation.

Of course, Summer League stats for second year players can be extremely misleading. Simply playing under control after a year acclimating to the speed of the NBA-style game (not to mention the security of a guaranteed contract for the upcoming season and usually beyond) often allows players to “produce” in this setting. But the manner in which Caldwell-Pope achieved his summer success, not capitalizing on the chaos of the venue but rather making precise, unhurried and repeatable NBA-ready plays arising from recognizable game situations demonstrate growth in Caldwell-Pope’s skill level that might just translate to a successful second season.

Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He writes about basketball at places like Washington Post's #FancyStats Blog, TrueHoop Network's ClipperBlog and his own website Where Offense Happens. Follow him @SethPartnow and sethpartnow.tumblr.com