Andre Drummond and how players learn in the NBA

Andre Drummond was the talk of the league.  Dunking, blocking and physically dominating on the fast track to superstardom, the 19 year-old giant’s adjustment to the NBA game was close to seamless.  He played to his prodigious natural gifts but showed calm, poise and feel far beyond his years, too. It wouldn’t be long before Drummond became such a hit, many forgot what a risk he was once perceived to be.

Drummond’s playing time seemed to lag behind his success.

Detroit head coach Lawrence Frank limited Drummond to just 20 minutes per game despite the rookie’s sizeable individual production and overall impact, holding close the a convention of “bringing him along slowly” as Drummond’s play begged for more exposure. Few players in league history combined Drummond’s athletic pedigree with such precocious immediate results; feed him minutes and reap the benefits, groupthink urged.

But Frank and the Pistons had a less popular and more controversial plan in mind to best foster Drummond’s evolution. And no matter the increasingly antagonistic public perception, they were sticking to it.

In a panel discussion at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy supported nuanced deliberation with respect to player progression.  

“The Washington Wizards went through a time where they took JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche and all those guys and they just let them play… The idea is that the players will continue to get better; I don’t buy that.  ‘If I can play the way I’m playing and I don’t have to change anything to get my playing time, why am I gonna change it?’ The only way to get better is to say, ‘These are our standards, this is the way we play basketball.’  And guys can sit for two or three years until they meet those standards, and then play better.”

McGee, Blatche and company necessitated a kind of nurture Wizards coaching and front office brass wouldn’t or couldn’t offer. The league’s landscape is rife with green youngsters struggling their way through major minutes, and until recently Washington’s talented but mercurial group were the ill-equipped and ill-fated pioneers of that pack. Now, theirs is a cautionary tale of ignorant planning when it comes to player development.

Somewhere inside them, Van Gundy asserts, McGee and Blatche had the wherewithal to succeed in the nation’s capital. But by receiving conventional means of NBA education from the Wizards in playing time barely earned or monitored, they were never given an appropriate chance.

Everyone learns differently. This is hardly a groundbreaking thought — Albert Eintstein’s quip that “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” has become cliche for a reason. But this commonsense idea is at the heart of a revolution in the way educators reach students.

Relatively new approaches to cerebral development like differentiated instruction (differentiated learning, differentiation) and Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences are placing a greater emphasis on students’ individual learning patterns. Both concepts stress specification with regard to the mind of an individual, that we all possess a varying ambit of cognitive strengths and weaknesses and deserve to be educated thusly, with those truths pushed to the forefront of teaching’s core philosophies.

Van Gundy’s words indirectly support this line of innovative scholastic tutoring. Young players need to be nourished and managed on a case by case basis like their student peers. Blanket playing time policies in the NBA and broad lesson plans in the classroom aren’t always the best way to promote a learner’s growth; instead, a more varied, outside-the-box approach is sometimes necessary to best help one reach their potential. 

Academically, I had no idea why I was going to college. I just blindly took the next fully assumed step for graduates of my high school and hardly thought twice. Like many of us, I left home unprepared – scholastically, athletically and socially in that descending order. But at least I wanted and understood the benefits of immediate dividends from football and friends. I couldn’t say the same for my studies.

I didn’t know my school’s journalism program consisted of approximately 35 students until I got to campus. With a total enrollment of several thousand, we were the smallest of blips on the academic radar. Nobody took ‘J’ classes as electives, so our class sizes were never bigger than 15 and sometimes smaller than eight. I hated it; there wasn’t much room to comfortably hide. My professors let me anyway, and my first semester grades accurately indicated overwhelming disinterest.

But that changed in the spring. Athletes were allowed first right of schedule refusal, so I took Editorial Writing, an upper-level course designed for near-graduates. I can’t remember why; likely because we met just twice a week. There were seven of us in class the first day and six every session thereafter. Class discussion was conversational and we wrote of most anything we wanted; the catch was a weekly, individual meeting with our professor to hash out ideas.

I attended the first one, skipped the next and rescheduled the third. When I finally went again, I was dressed down.  Profanities laced my instructor’s measured tirade, with biting words like “waste,” “voice” and “irresponsible” reverberating more than any others. I was slacking the way I always had, and he was clear he wouldn’t sit idly by and allow it without failing me. That’s when I knew I wanted to write, and for the first time thought I might be able to.

My GPA was stagnant. I barely went to biology and cheated on math homework with teammates. But by challenging me initially and in many meetings following through ways I never had been, my professor pointed me the direction I’m still headed. And if he hadn’t, I know I’d be lost somewhere else. 

“When we drafted Andre, we had a very good feel for how we wanted to pace him along.  He’s doing some good things.  We’re proud of him.  At the same time, the experience, the know-how with it is, we want to understand how to build this up.”

That was Lawrence Frank in December, flooded by the public’s overwhelming disdain for so carefully handling Drummond’s minutes. And the basketball world’s reaction wasn’t totally wrong; arguments abound in opposition or support of Frank’s approach, and normal league protocol certainly hedges toward the former. After all, nobody expected Drummond to be this good this quickly. To so strictly abide by guidelines set when he was drafted – as Frank readily admits above – seems stubborn.

But there’s a long list of complex factors at play here to which we have no access – the nuances of Drummond’s personal disposition and his most intricate responsibilities amid Detroit’s offensive and defensive schemes chief among them. Frank indicates just as much: “There are certain things that we’re privy to that maybe the public isn’t,” he said in December.  And by standards of differentiation and Theory of Multiple of Intelligences, they may loom more important than we superficially believe.

We should consider Drummond beyond his statistical production. In doing so we are confronted with his personal humanity — something we have far less data on than the Pistons do.

Before injuring his back early last month, Drummond was thriving. So were the Pistons. He was happy, getting better and playing at a level which few thought he was capable of so soon in his professional career.  Frank’s method, at least with regards to Drummond, was working. And if Detroit wasn’t deviating from it, they clearly had endogenized reason to believe their rookie was headed the right direction.

Player development deserves scrutiny. We gave it to Frank and he steadfastly stayed the course.  And until Drummond stalls and fails to deliver on all this early promise, we won’t know if Frank was right or wrong. Even then, ancillary factors would need to be considered; a player’s range of potential is that vast and seismically charged. For now, though, give Frank credit for understanding there’s no foolproof guide to NBA education, contentious as that belief may be. And if Drummond returns better than ever next season, don’t forget the enlightened origin of all that controversy; it could be the most direct means behind his improvement.

Related posts:

  1. Andre Drummond is on the march
  2. Up in the air: Is it OK for NBA players to leap before looking?
  3. The NBA’s top pin-down players
  4. That the boys might learn the rules
  5. The NBA’s top pinch post players


  1. [...] not to say that Rivers was an anti-tanker: he just wasn’t willing to let the youngsters run free, like the Wizards did with Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. As long as Doc was on the sidelines, he was going to coach. And as long as Pierce was available [...]

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