Why Greg Monroe Is Critical to New-Look Detroit Pistons Reaching Playoff Ceiling

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

Apr 6, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe (10) looks on during a free throw in the first half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Monroe's comfort zone is gone.

The Detroit Pistons big man has seen a multitude of changes around him and is making even more modifications from within.

Externally, the pressure for the Pistons to perform is as great as it's ever been in Monroe's three-year career. Josh Smith was the prized pull of Detroit's offseason, but hardly the only summertime development that has the Pistons poised to snap their current four-year postseason drought.

Brandon Jennings (career 17.0 points and 5.7 assists per game) inherits the floor general duties. Sophomore post man Andre Drummond is looking to build on the strong showings from his rookie year (13.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes) and his 2013 summer league play (15.5 points and 14.8 boards per game).

Veteran Chauncey Billups as well as rookies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luigi Datome are tasked with reviving the Pistons' mediocre perimeter attack (35.6 percent last season, 18th in the NBA).

Internally, the challenges facing Monroe are even greater. With playoff hopes and future earnings perched squarely on his shoulders, Detroit's most overlooked star is headed for his moment in the spotlight.

Ready or not, it's sink-or-swim time for the 23-year-old. He'll be leading the team's postseason ship through some potentially treacherous waters.

Here's what to keep an eye on this season where Monroe is concerned.

Substantiated Upside

Hype is a funny thing in the world of sports.

It's almost always discussed in complimentary tones, but really it's just another way of saying something is unproven.

In that sense, the Pistons are carrying tremendous hypeboth good and badinto 2013-14. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but so too is the abundance of question marks around it.

Some of those questions are far enough along that we can at least make educated guesses about their answers.

Smith probably won't stop firing up long twos in his 10th NBA season. In fact, it sounds like he'll be looking for even more of them. Jennings isn't likely to become a pass-first point guard overnight.

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 3: Brandon Jennings #3 of the Milwaukee Bucks pulls up for a two pointer during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bradley Center on November 3, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Others haven't left their infancy stages yet and may not be answered before season's end.

Drummond seems destined for stardom, but who really knows if his production will grow with a dramatic increase in playing time? Caldwell-Pope and Datome have the makings of strong shooters, but how will they be affected by the speed and strength at the NBA level?

Then there's Monroe, who's surrounded by the good kind of hype. His track record is long enough to be trusted, but not too long to cap his career arc.

He can match the production of Smith or Jennings without raising the same red flags (shot selection, attitude).

His upside is in the neighborhood of Drummond's, but comes with a much wider safety net. High ceilings are nice, but they can disrupt a franchise if they come with equally low floors. Proven production is critical to any team's success—particularly one with this many new faces.

Someone needs to lead this team through transition. History says neither Smith nor Jennings are built for that role. Leadership might be part of Drummond's future, but it isn't there yet. Billups is a good locker room presence, but his voice will only carry as far his body will allow it to (42 total games played over the last two seasons).

Monroe has established himself with this franchise. This is his team, even if it's barely recognizable anymore.

He'll need to provide a steady hand on the floor and consistent voice away from it. No Pistons player has more at stake this season than Monroe.

Unfinished Business

After carrying this franchise through some turbulent times, it's Monroe's foundation that's now shaking to its core.

Despite finding his niche as an upper-echelon low-post scorerRotoWorld.com indicates that 79.6 percent of his field goals in 2012-13 came within eight feet of the baskethis basketball limits will be pushed like never before.

Drummond can't begin to tap into his oozing potential without Monroe undergoing a position change.

Luckily, Pistons.com's Keith Langlois reported that Monroe saw the writing on the wall and has been preparing his body for the athletic challenges that await him at the 4 spot.

I’m in great shape. I went to a new guy who was great for me. I got a chef, changed my eating. I just wanted to get in the best shape I could. I wanted to make sure my body was in great condition. I think I did a good job of that and the people I work with did a great job of getting me on the right path.

Monroe told Langlois that he's been working on improving his quickness and ball-handling. With Drummond clogging the middle and Smith (hopefully) spending some time on the low block, Monroe's offensive touches are going to come further away from the basket than they ever have.

Tightening his handles will help, but the first order of business will be finding that reliable mid-range jumper that has eluded him thus far.

He's shot above 31 percent from beyond 10 feet just once in his career, peaking with a 38.1 percent success rate in 2011-12.

Monroe's 2012-13 shot chart, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Monroe's 2012-13 shot chart, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

His greatest offensive gifts are his court vision and passing ability—his 3.5 assists per game tied for second among all centers last season—but both are in jeopardy if the Pistons can't find optimal offensive spacing next season.

In order for that to happen, he has to become a scoring threat from the high post.

Defensively, some of Monroe's struggles could be fixing themselves. His biggest problem has been a wavering focus as a help defender, but those responsibilities are diminishing.

With shot-blockers Drummond and Smith around him, his biggest challenge will be matching the athleticism of the perimeter-oriented stretch 4s.

Admittedly, there is work to be done, but Monroe will have some extra motivation fueling his fire.

Tabling Negotiations

For a number of players, the first three seasons of their career make up the extent of their bargaining power. Contract extensions are treated as rites of passage for rising stars.

Entering year No. 4 without a contract extension in hand is often deemed as a failure.

But Monroe's agent, David Falk, doesn't see things that way. As he told Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News, (h/t HoopsRumors.com), his client won't be losing any negotiating chips by playing this season without a new deal:

Greg isn't gonna go backwards between his third and fourth year. I don't think I've ever done an extension after a third year. In the '90s you maxed out a guy after his second, but the [CBA] rules are different now...The structure of the CBA, for me, I can't speak for others, I question why that makes sense.

Given the position change, it is an interesting strategy. It would be easier to buy Monroe maintaining his production if not for those dramatic shifts in his role and responsibilities.

But with so much money at stake, Monroe will give everything that he has to make this a smooth transition.

Contract years are often synonymous with career years. The Pistons, Monroe and Falk are all hoping that trend will continue.

Buying or Selling the New-Look Monroe?

It's hard not to be bullish about the former Georgetown star and, as an extension, the new-look Pistons.

Monroe is someone who makes his teammates better. Before, that meant keeping his undermanned squad clear of the NBA cellar. Now, it means taking center stage for a team rife with postseason hopes.

He commands double-teams and now has the shooters and slashers around him to make opposing teams pay for that extra attention. His ability to read the floor leaves hope for efficiency in the futures of Smith and Jennings.

If Drummond isn't quite ready to take that next step, Monroe can handle the interior duties and keep this team in postseason contention.

While his teammates are drawing the lion's share of the coverage, the Moose is the one giving Pistons fans comfort—the same feeling he lost during Detroit's hyperactive offseason.


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