NEW YORK – Of all that he accomplished and observed during a nearly two-week visit to South Africa as part of the NBA Africa Game and Basketball without Borders, the image that most resonated with Andre Drummond was one that he felt helpless to fix. While slapping bricks on wet cement during a charity event for Habitat for Humanity just outside Johannesburg, Drummond noticed a little boy eating a tree branch and almost lost it.
The NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association had food and water set aside for volunteers but Drummond felt guilty that they were available for people with the means to get those items on their own. Instinctively, Drummond grabbed a large box filled with fruits and sandwiches and walked over to the neighborhood children who were playing in the squalor of Orange Farm township.
“I gave every last bit of food that we had away. I gave every bit of water away,” Drummond told The Vertical. “When I brought it out, it was like Christmas on their faces, to see how excited they were for fresh fruit and fresh water. It was an emotional moment for me and for my mom, too. That’s how she lived. For her, it hit home a little bit, being in that environment.”
Drummond felt the gesture was the least he could do under the circumstances. His mother, Christine Cameron, had grown up in meager conditions in Jamaica and shared stories with Drummond of her hand-washing clothes and hanging them outside. But observing people in similar surroundings brought that reality home for Drummond, who saw some hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.
“It was really eye-opening for me,” Drummond told The Vertical. “To see the living conditions, what their lives are like every day and where they rest their heads, it was tough for me to look at. To see the kids that were hungry out there. That was hard for me to even look at. It took a while for me to adjust to where I was at, because I didn’t want to believe I was there. The stuff I was looking at, is the stuff you see on TV. So to be there physically, to be a part of that environment, was crazy. Just to be around, just to see how happy, how positive people saw it, no matter what their circumstances were, it was a really humbling experience.”
After helping his family fulfill a dream of visiting South Africa, spreading the game abroad and playing an exhibition game for the first time since having surgery last April to repair a deviated septum, Drummond had a lot upon which to reflect on his 17-hour flight back to the United States. Putting aside jetlag from his long journey, Drummond showed up this week at Baruch College for the NBPA’s basketball camp. Drummond spoke to the kids, played a game of knockout, barely beat “The Hangover” star and Pistons fan Justin Bartha in a game of one-on-one, signed autographs and gleefully danced after being presented with balloons and a strawberry cake on the eve of his 24th birthday. He then quickly hopped on another flight to Las Vegas for a few days of workouts and bonding with his teammates on the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons were one of the more disappointing teams in the league last season, following up a 2016 playoff appearance with an eyesore of an encore that included Reggie Jackson struggling with a knee injury and Drummond finding himself in trade rumors for the first time after failing to live up to the first year of a five-year, $130 million pact.
“It was a lot of up and down. We were very inconsistent. It was not the team, who we are. A lot of things happened to us, a lot of injuries. Guys weren’t playing to best of their abilities – and it starts with me,” Drummond told The Vertical between bites of his birthday cake. “I didn’t come out playing the way I was supposed to. I needed to take it upon myself to be a leader this summer, to really take care of myself, take care of my body to make sure my team got better.”
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy tried to remedy some of the problems with leadership by acquiring from Boston veteran shooting guard Avery Bradley, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders whose offense has steadily improved each season. Drummond is excited about the addition but doesn’t want to dodge the responsibilities that Van Gundy empowered him with the moment he handed out that enormous contract.
The Pistons’ slide was especially upsetting for Drummond, who – at the urging of his mother – decided this would be the summer he finally addressed the problem that contributed to his inability to stay in the best condition the past four years. Drummond’s left nostril had been closed since sustaining an injury in his lone college season at Connecticut. The problem never became much of a concern until last season, when Drummond averaged the fewest minutes since his rookie season – in part because his poor free-throw shooting made him a late-game liability but also because he was, at times, too fatigued to finish.
“For me, it was difficult. It was hard to breathe at times. My sinuses were worse than normal because I was breathing out of one nostril,” Drummond told The Vertical. “But obviously getting that surgery done now was probably the best thing I’ve done because now I’m breathing better, sleeping better and in way better shape now. I’m going to be able to go longer. I’m able to breathe clearer. I keep the weight off now. I’ve lost 20-plus pounds from the end of the season until now.”
Drummond felt a noticeable difference during the NBA Africa Game when he was able to get up and down without any complications despite the high altitude. He was feeling so good that he attempted six 3-pointers, connecting on one. Though he has averaged fewer than five threes a season for his career, Drummond hinted that he might expand his range for next season. “I worked really hard on my game this summer,” said Drummond, who has worked out this offseason, mostly in Los Angeles, with famed trainer Idan Ravin. “Shooting free throws with confidence. I’m taking shots with confidence now.”
But no way does he starting launching from long distance with a grumpy Van Gundy glaring from the sidelines, right? “As long as I get a block on the other end, he can’t say nothing else,” Drummond told The Vertical.
With several Eastern Conference teams taking a “wake-me-when-LeBron’s-gone” approach to the upcoming season, electing to rebuild rather than challenge Cleveland, Detroit has a chance to return to the playoffs, almost by default. The Pistons are poised to make what Drummond called “a dope” move to downtown next season. But Detroit has never been much of a free-agent destination, so the franchise stands to improve if the players it drafts and develops are able to become stars. Drummond appeared to be on the right path, but last season had some wondering if he had already plateaued. He remained one of the league’s best rebounders but wasn’t much of deterrent for opponents driving into the lane, and his post moves left plenty to be desired.
“Last year, was a tough year for me,” Drummond told The Vertical. “I didn’t play to the best of my ability. I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to, to make my team better. It was a very hard year for me, physically and mentally, to be a part of, but I’m in a great space right now. Surgery was huge for me. And having a clear mind, I’m just really energized for the upcoming season.”
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