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Was upgrade from Dwight Howard to Andre Drummond underestimated?

Optimism from a positive preseason opener.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Philadelphia 76ers signed Andre Drummond to a one-year, veteran minimum deal back in early August, more people commented upon Drummond’s past history of getting dunked on by Joel Embiid — both on and off the court — than what the veteran big man could bring to the team. Generally speaking, people viewed it as a perfectly fine signing as a direct one-for-one replacement for Dwight Howard and then moved on to finding another workable destination on the NBA trade machine for Ben Simmons.

However, with Joel Embiid resting for Monday night’s preseason opener, first tip in Toronto was our initial extended look at Drummond in a Sixers uniform, and the results were highly encouraging. The 10th-year center finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, and four blocks, alongside five turnovers. He had 17 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks in the first half, before tiring after halftime, according to Doc Rivers after the game:

“Yeah, he was great other than the turnovers. I thought he got tired. We weren’t going to play him after halftime and then we needed some minutes. You could tell he thought he wasn’t going to have to play.”

Meanwhile, if you needed a reminder of the full Dwight Howard experience, here’s what happened with him in the Lakers’ first preseason game on Sunday:

Now, Dwight was a perfectly adequate backup center last season at the veteran’s minimum, and brought a lot of joy to the team with his embrace of the Frosty Freeze-Out, phantom LeBron chalk tosses, etc. Even his foibles became a somewhat lovable through line of the Sixers’ season: “Oh, there’s Dwight drawing another flagrant for bringing his mountainous arms down like a battle axe. What a character.” It’s not Howard’s fault Doc Rivers refused to try something else in a suboptimal playoff matchup for him, or that an obviously better alternative option wasn’t on the roster.

While Drummond certainly brings the same rim-running, rebounding, and rim-protecting qualities that Dwight did, he also brings added benefits that we may have underestimated. Specifically, his passing ability could be a huge boon for a second unit that lacked playmaking last season, and one which could struggle again with Shake Milton currently tabbed to lead that group while trying to learn the point guard position. Drummond spoke about that second unit coming together at practice last Saturday:

“Throughout training camp our second unit has looked really good. [We’ve] put the pressure on the [starters]. Our camaraderie and just how hard we play, we’re really putting the pressure on them. … We’re looking forward to just meshing and gelling whenever we do get on the court together.”

On his burgeoning on-court relationship with Shake, Drummond had this to say:

“When I first got here we played a pickup game together, and I was throwing a lot of backdoor passes and they ended up being turnovers, and he was like, ‘Yo, I didn’t really know you could pass the ball that well.’ There were a few plays where I threw the ball and it landed in his hands and just went out of bounds. I think now after three, four days and these weeks of playing with each other, we’ve found a nice rhythm and it’s been great playing with him.”

Drummond has put up multiple seasons with at or just under three assists per game, whereas Howard has never reached two per game. We saw some nice glimpses of that passing ability in the preseason opener with his three assists and solid ball movement. The veteran center showed off his not-bad-for-a-big drive-and-kick game:

Drummond spoke to reporters in Toronto following Monday’s game about his ability to do more than rebound and defend:

“I think the most enjoyable part of this preseason so far has been just being with the guys — how they embrace me and how much they believe in my abilities outside of what I’m known for, which is obviously rebounding and blocking shots and scoring in the paint. But the other small, intangible things that I do — being a leader, being able to pass the ball, being able to get my guys going on both ends of the court — they’ve really embraced me in that role and I really appreciate them for giving me a chance to step in and help in any way possible.”

Of course, we should never overreact to one game, especially a preseason game, and the Raptors were putting a smaller lineup out on the court than other teams might. However, Drummond flashed some of those extra qualities he brings to the table that Howard did not. Plus, he is seven years younger than Dwight, and won’t be quite the goaltending and flagrant-foul-committing machine that Howard was and is.

Andre Drummond isn’t the stretch big that fans hoped Daryl Morey might add to the roster this offseason, but we should still move forward with the hope that the backup center position has improved from a year ago.