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Andre Drummond is thriving in reserve role with Sixers

The veteran center has been stellar through six games.

NBA: Preseason-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since his rookie season, Andre Drummond entered the year slated for a reserve gig. Between 2013 and 2020, he suited up for 585 games and started 584 of them. During that span, he earned two All-Star nods and was named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2015-16.

Yet an uneven conclusion to his tenures with the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers saw him arrive in Los Angeles midseason on a minimum deal last year. When the Lakers’ season ended unceremoniously, which had much more to do with injuries and poor shooting than anything involving him, the discourse unjustifiably turned Drummond into a punchline.

Overwhelmingly, analysis failed to differentiate between the fact that he was merely a non-star recently on a max deal and, instead, framed him as a borderline NBA talent. He is a good player and likely a top-30 center still, even if he didn’t, and doesn’t, approximate the on-court impact of others on max deals (although, given the revenue these players drive, they’re all underpaid in the grand scheme).

So, Drummond joined the Philadelphia 76ers on the veteran’s minimum to mark his 10th season in the league. And through six games, the 28-year-old has been exceptional, easily the best backup center during Joel Embiid’s stay with the franchise (excluding Al Horford, who started 61 games). In 18.8 minutes per night, he’s averaging 6.7 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 assists, two steals and one block.

When Embiid is on the floor, the Sixers run many dribble handoff-based actions or sets that send players moving East-West while Embiid coordinates the offense. Drummond’s ability to facilitate DHOs in a manner similar to Embiid — and much better than Dwight Howard — has provided some lineup continuity and is one reason Philadelphia’s bench has styled and profiled thus far. He’s also been an excellent screener to carve out space for his partners on these plays.

Beyond simple DHOs, Drummond has expediently formed a connection with Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang offensively, is a good, albeit sometimes erratic, short-roll passer and keeps his eyes peeled to thread dimes to cutters — another area his audaciousness periodically trumps his execution.

Frustrating turnovers persist, though that is woven into the Andre Drummond Experience, but his playmaking has invigorated the offense. The Sixers’ primary bench unit of Shake Milton-Korkmaz-Matisse-Thybulle-Niang-Drummond has scored 62 points in 24 minutes (117.0 offensive rating), in part because the reserve center can be entrusted to capably spearhead some offense.

“(Passing) is just something that’s been a part of my game my whole career. They’re using me the right way here, and it’s something that I’m very good at,” Drummond said following Monday’s victory. “I find guys because the defense pulls in when I do roll. I roll hard, so I’m able to make that next pass to the shooters.”

Despite leading the NBA in rebounds per game four times in five seasons between 2016 and 2020, he is, statistically, enjoying the most prolific boards campaign of his career. His 30 percent rebounding rate is a high-water mark and 26.5 rebounds per 100 possessions comfortably exceeds his previous best of 23.7. He’s gobbling up everything in his orbit.

That sort of prowess was to be entirely expected, though. Where he’s really shined is as a pick-and-roll defender. Assistant coach Dan Burke, who plays a significant role in shaping the defensive schemes, deserves credit for empowering Drummond to play near the level of the screen. Not every team is content with that aggression, but it’s necessary to maximize Drummond’s exploits. Sitting him back in drop breeds inactivity and poor rotations.

He touts rare dexterity for a big man and has ranked in the 92nd percentile or better in steal rate since 2015-16, per Cleaning The Glass. By employing him near the level of the screen, he’s free to muck up angles for pocket passes. To unsuccessful results, teams are trying to slip deliveries past him. He’s shutting down those pursuits. His 4.8 percent steal rate is well above his prior best of 2.6 percent and will normalize in time, but certainly underscores the nuisance he’s been for opponents in passing lanes.

When he’s not directly inducing turnovers, he’s admirably playing the delicate balance of containing the ball-handler and defending the roller. He’ll stunt at drivers to kill their dribble and quickly backpedal to break up lobs or protect the rim. He’s delaying decision-making from initiators to allow point-of-attack defenders to recover. The Sixers’ defensive rating is 7.3 points better with him on the court this season, largely because of how well he’s performing in pick-and-roll coverage (in addition to the small sample caveat, though these numbers do generally align with the eye test).

The early returns for Drummond’s Sixers era have been extremely profitable. Everything he’s saying and doing resemble a player fully embracing his opportunity en route to earning a long-term deal next summer. Philadelphia is optimally deploying him on both ends and he’s vitalizing units by aptly complementing the surrounding personnel.

Nothing has changed besides some circumstances, though. This is who Andre Drummond is: a good basketball player contributing to a good team — and it’s benefiting everyone.

“I don’t think I have anything to prove. Anybody that’s watched me in my career knows what I’m capable of,” he said. “This is nothing new; it’s something I do on a nightly basis, just in a different role.”