Breakneck Slow

Photo via 'Dandelion on Flickr

Greg Monroe is a fascinating player; a player I enjoy watching for his incredible gifts, as well as his inescapable flaws. Nothing exemplified Monroe’s intriguing dynamic more than watching him operate on offense in his 32-point, 16-rebound outburst against the Milwaukee Bucks. He started off most face-up opportunities the same way: a series of jab steps, up-fakes, and hesitations that make it seem as though absolutely nothing is going to come out of the possession. They are slow, methodical, and he strings together about a million of them in a row. Of course, the object is to either create some space between you and the defender for a jump shot, or catch the defender snoozing while you pass them by.

Monroe’s jumper is vastly improved since his freshman year at Georgetown, but if he’s in a face-up isolation, he’s looking to take it into the paint. This is where things get interesting. For a player who is by most standards and metrics a very slow dude, he has a surprising first step. But it isn’t automatic. He isn’t Blake or Amar’e, who are capable (when they want to) of instantaneously accelerating. Monroe takes his time, generating an internal momentum with the rhythmic pulses of his jab steps, finding the right moment to do a quick spin in either direction to get free for either a lay-in or a hook shot. The window of opportunity he has to catch his defender off-guard is extremely slim. His burst of speed peters out almost as soon as it occurs, making timing everything. Succeed and it’s an easy basket. Fail and it’s an ugly contested heave towards the basket in hopes of drawing a foul, a call which he inevitably will not get.

Still, watching Monroe master his timing game after game is a treat. After scoring 32 on the Bucks (primarily Andrew Bogut) and other strong frontcourts in the past, he’s proven to be fully capable of scoring against elite defenders. His success is about establishing his own pace and rhythm, and strategic detonation. (What I’m saying is Greg Monroe would be fantastic at Bomberman.)

And this patience and strategic planning is what sets him apart from his 2010 draft peer in DeMarcus Cousins. While DeMarcus unquestionably has more upside, his approach to offense— playing as an unhinged human wrecking ball– stray from his greatest strengths (freakish length, nimbleness). Monroe, playing with heavy feet for all of his life, has found ways around his limitations.

In only his second season, he’s begun the process of erasing his struggles from his rookie season. According to Hoopdata, Monroe had his shot blocked 12.4 percent of the time last season, which ranked sixth-worst among NBA players playing at least 20 minutes a game. So far, after 124 shots attempted in the 11-12 season, he’s only been blocked six times, dropping his blocked percentage by a third. Monroe’s incredible efficiency around the basket has been well-established, but he is also shooting midrange jump shots at a much higher clip than last season. According to StatsCube, in 11 games, he’s already shot more than half the amount of midrange shots as he did all of last season with almost twice the accuracy.

Monroe’s game against the Bucks will be a revelation for most, and it is indeed a very good sampler of exactly how Monroe can impact the Pistons. However, the prior game against the Mavericks indicates that both the team and Monroe have a ways to go before consistently delivering All-Star caliber performances. While Monroe’s usage has gone up, the games against Dallas and Chicago where he took less than 10 shots make it clear that they aren’t using him enough, or properly. For much of the season, Monroe’s elite-level passing ability and vision has made him look like Detroit’s best distributor. Teams will certainly key in on Monroe more intently in the coming weeks, and it would be nice if the team adjusts accordingly. Observing Monroe as the team’s primary facilitator would be an interesting development, especially given how stagnant Detroit’s offense has looked in their losing streak, but it all hinges on the spacing and movement of the rest of the team.

Greg Monroe’s development has been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak season thus far for the Pistons, but there is still much work to be done. As talented as he is on offense, he isn’t and shouldn’t be the anchor for their defense. Those issues will have to be resolved in next year’s draft (in which the Pistons will surely nab a top-five selection). But that’s almost half a year from now. And that’s fine. Monroe is showing quite clearly that slow and steady wins the race.

Seth Carstens