NEW YORK -- It's almost quaint to remember how Andre Drummond was thought of, back when he played a season at the University of Connecticut.
Drummond, considered a potential No. 1 overall pick following his perfunctory one season in college, struggled at times despite his 6-foot-10 height and astonishing athleticism.
I saw him at my first opportunity, in an early January 2012 game against Seton Hall. Going up for a rebound early in the game, he rose and managed to snatch the ball as it came high off the rim, almost at the top of the backboard. It was a small play, but I'd never seen anyone at any level go higher to get a board.
But there were too many games for Drummond at Connecticut like that one, when he managed to score just four points, take five shots and fail to be much of a factor, let alone dominate.
"He doesn't have a clue what it takes to be a great NBA player," ESPN's Chad Ford said "He doesn't understand the work that's got to be put in, how hard it is, all the obstacles and challenges he's going to face. He doesn't have a clue."
The league largely agreed with Ford. With franchise centers as scarce and highly sought as ever, Drummond slipped all the way to the ninth pick, where the Detroit Pistons took him.
In that same clip, ESPN's Dave Telep worried Drummond would struggle absent veteran leadership.
"If he goes to a culture of not much structure and a lot of flexibility, it could be trouble for him."
Well, that's exactly what happened. Drummond went to Detroit, where Lawrence Frank, in his final season, played him just 20 minutes per game. The roster included nine players in their first, second or third seasons.
And Drummond, who turned 19 just before the season, was significantly better statistically for the Pistons than he'd been in college. Facing the Heat and Pacers instead of Seton Hall and DePaul, Drummond shot nearly 61 percent. He'd been below 54 percent from the field at UConn. His offensive rebounding percentage has been higher in each of his NBA seasons than his total rebounding percentage in college. His turnovers were down.
It's the kind of transition from college to the pros that few players have. That it came from a player who managed to disappoint in his previous transition, who was only 19 years old when he did it, only reinforces the impressive improbability of his rookie season.
"He's just been putting in the work," Greg Monroe explained to me, sitting at his locker prior to Tuesday night's game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. "From the outside, you guys don't understand it. But being around him every day, we're not surprised within the organization."
And that's fine as an explanation, to a point. Drummond wouldn't be the first player who'd been unfairly maligned for his effort, or even the first to figure things out, especially one judged at such a tender age. But the very player I was speaking to, Monroe, was known for his work habits at Georgetown. And Monroe was effective in his rookie season with the Pistons back in 2010-11. But he'd been a monster at Georgetown, with a Player Efficiency Rating up over 25 in his last college season. He registered a solid, but significantly lower 18.1 with Detroit.
Drummond, despite his reduced usage in Lawrence Frank's offense, still managed a 21.6 PER with the Pistons, on the heels of his 21.9 with Connecticut. If that didn't serve as a rebuke to Ford's dismissal of Drummond, how he described the transition from college to pro ball certainly does.
"You know, I have to adjust," Drummond said in his quiet voice, sitting at his locker prior to Tuesday's game. "You know, it's a new life for me. I had to change up some certain things about my game. I had to run the floor more, be a defender, a presence down low. A lot of things to get used to, but it took me the year to figure it out."
Drummond had a point. He shot 59 percent in his first 50 games before missing six weeks with a back injury. Returning in late March, that number jumped to 67.2 percent.
Drummond had other factors working for him that some centers simply don't. He has, for instance, Monroe, a gifted power forward who would play center for most other teams. And Monroe's ability to do things like pass out of the high post, for instance, complements the explosive near-the-basket finishing that Drummond manages like few players in the league.
"I think we do complement each other as players," Monroe said. "I think that was the whole point of bringing him in. The front office thought, people making decisions felt comfortable with us playing together. So I think it does help both of us out."
That was certainly the case Tuesday night in New York, with Monroe and Drummond combining for 21 of the Pistons' first 29 points.
But despite his ability to blend with Monroe, Drummond's physicality is eye-catching as ever, whether it was rising high above the rim and flushing Josh Smith's lob in the first quarter, one of four he had in the first half alone, or batting through three Knicks to obtain an offensive rebound, something that's become a specialty for him this season, when he owns the highest offensive rebounding percentage in the league.
Even seeing Drummond and Monroe play together has been a far more frequent occurrence under new coach Maurice Cheeks. Last year, under Frank, Drummond and Monroe, arguably the best pair as easily on the Pistons, didn't manage to crack the top 20 in two-man combos for the team. Once again, Drummond knew he'd face a huge challenge, this time seeing his minutes jump from just over 20 per game to more than 32.
"I had a conversation with Mo when he got hired," Drummond said. "He told me, 'You know, you're not gonna play 20 minutes anymore. You'll be playing a lot of minutes.' And he said, 'Are you ready to run?'
"I said yeah, I'm ready to run. So I've been focusing on my conditioning, making sure my body's right."
Drummond, who was described in 2012 by Justin Verrier at ESPN as "an 18-year-old who struggled to stay away from the snacks at South dining hall," changed up his diet as he worked on his post game this summer.
"I'm eating a lot of fish," Drummond said, sounding almost surprised. "Lot of fish." Tilapia and salmon are high on his list.
What's been fascinating, in a season with a new head coach, an even more crowded front court thanks to the addition of Josh Smith, is that Drummond's simply been a constant, maintaining his production in every single area while playing vastly more minutes each game. This is no trivial thing: as my colleague Shlomo Sprung put it, "There's a big difference between your per-36 minutes averages and production in 36 minutes." So what looks like the same production requires improvement.
"I just think he gets better every game," his coach, Cheeks, told me outside the locker room Tuesday night. "The minutes he plays just allow him to get better."
And that's another advantage Drummond, who won't be 21 until next summer, has enjoyed. According to Cheeks, that's the upside of putting players like Drummond, who would have been college sophomores back when Cheeks played, into the league so soon. Even more recently, the players just out of high school would often work into rotations gradually. Even Kobe Bryant didn't crack 30 minutes per game until his third year.
"Before, when guys, as young players, would watch -- they don't watch anymore," Cheeks said. "They're actually on the floor. And they actually pay dividends when they go on the floor, and they learn the league -- people obviously learn them -- but they learn what they can do, what they need to get better, and they just get better at it. … There's no better teaching tool for me than a guy being out on the floor."
Drummond was out on the floor hours before the game, too, working with an animated Rasheed Wallace (is there any other kind?) on his post game. That's the next big weapon for Drummond, and it is coming along nicely.
"He's definitely been a big help for me," Drummond said. "He's taught me a lot. My back-to-the-basket game is getting better. I've learned a lot of moves that before, I wasn't doing. I'm actually doing -- last night, or the night before, I think it was -- I did a drop-step spin move into a layup. I haven't done that, ever. It's working on things like that, that get me really excited."
Drummond was right. It came here, at the 22-second mark, from an offensive rebound, another advancement in Drummond's game that he credits to a combination of improved conditioning and learning the league.
So it seems foolish to bet against Drummond as he works on what he believes must come next.
"My back-to-the-basket game, and my pick-and-roll defense," Drummond said of his biggest current challenges. His inexperience showed a few times Tuesday night -- an Iman Shumpert dunk to open the third quarter came when Drummond failed to see him cutting to the basket. And Amar'e Stoudemire's post move befuddled Drummond ahead of a poster-worthy slam.
And clearly, the free throws, still shy of 40 percent, need to be converted at a better rate.
It probably isn't fair to expect the same kind of linear progression from Drummond that he's had so far. That's what turned his freshman season at Connecticut, which provided evidence of such promise, into a campaign that made him a punching bag before he was out of his teen years.
But Drummond has certainly silenced those critics. If he never gets any better, he's performing at a star level in the NBA already. And betting on him to merely stagnate looks like as poor a risk as writing him off at 19 turned out to be.