Waiting His Turn
Datome eager for fresh start after learning NBA’s ropes as a rookie
“When I came in July, I said my goal was to show I could play also in this league,” he said as the Pistons entered the last week of their season, their playoff hopes snuffed out. “I was sure it wouldn’t be something easy the first day, that the things I did in Italy I could do here, for sure. I hope that maybe now, maybe next season is going to be the right moment and I’ll have the right opportunity to show my skills.”
Datome came to the NBA at the peak of his game and his bargaining power, having led Rome to the Finals and rising to captain status on the Italian national team. But the timing was also unfortunate in that the critical off-season leading to his debut synced up with the 2013 EuroBasket tournament, held last September, for an Italian national team that had to lean heavily on Datome with Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bargnani both unavailable.
Datome arrived in Detroit, just days before training camp was to open, coming off both a long playoff drive in Italy and a grueling national team obligation. In addition to general wear and tear, he had a troublesome foot injury that dogged him into camp. And less than a week after camp started, he pulled a hamstring that cost him all of the preseason schedule. That would be a setback to any player, but an exponentially bigger hindrance to one facing the transition Datome did.
“That month or 25 days that you have is really a learning thing, especially a player that hasn’t played in the NBA yet, from terminology to learning his teammates,” John Loyer said. “He’d played a lot of basketball, so his conditioning was very good, but his body was a little beat up and he had the two injuries. But he’s been solid. Gigi, every single day, comes in and competes and lays it on the line. He’s got a great work ethic and a great attitude.”
Loyer, in fact, said that in his 26 years in the business, Datome – and rookie Peyton Siva – rank among the top 5 percent of players he’s coached for their work habits. Datome and Kyle Singler are workout partners and Loyer has continued to conduct their shooting drills since being elevated to interim head coach. That wasn’t happenstance. He thought Datome would benefit from observing the pace at which Singler went about his workouts, while Singler’s shooting would be elevated by the competition Datome represented.
Make no mistake: Loyer believes to his core that Datome has the stuff to be a superb NBA shooter.
“He’s shot it in pretty big European games and made shots,” he said. “I don’t worry about that. I think it’s feeling comfortable playing, getting some extended minutes. When you’re thrown in there to make a shot, that’s not an easy thing to do. There are only a few guys in the NBA who can do it. When you’re thrown in there to play and you happen to get in some shots, then it’s a lot easier. I think Gigi will be fine.”
That’s the Catch-22 under which the 26-year-old Datome has operated. Shooting is his calling card. To play, he has to make shots. But making shots – especially for a player dropped into the middle of a foreign league – requires a level of comfort that only comes with playing.
“It’s not easy to play five minutes of garbage time, sit five games and then maybe play three minutes,” Datome said. “It’s a rhythm. The best thing I can do is shoot. I’ve always been a shooter – when I get in the rhythm of the game. I am sorry because percentage is terrible. But I’m sure if I get regular minutes and in the rhythm of the game and with my teammates, for sure percentage is going to be up.”
Datome played the whole fourth quarter of Wednesday’s lopsided loss at Cleveland, when the Pistons fell behind by 32 points at halftime, and looked good in scoring nine points and grabbing four rebounds. He hit 2 of 3 shots, 1 of 2 from the 3-point arc, and sunk all four of his free throws. It was only his sixth appearance in a game since March 1 for a total of 40 minutes.
He’s hoping that becomes his norm in season two. He plans to spend all of May working out with Arnie Kander, adding strength, before returning to Italy. Datome doesn’t regret playing for his national team, a source of tremendous pride for him and his teammates. But he grudgingly acknowledges training camp couldn’t have played out any more disadvantageously for him.
“It’s something you can’t control,” he said. “They were such crucial games to play. Then I had the problem with the foot and the hamstring that it took away the possibility for me to show in training camp. The preseason is when coach can try the young guys to show what we could do. I didn’t have the chance, but it’s something I can’t control. Hopefully, next training camp is going to be better.”
He’ll play for Italy again this summer, joining the team in early July, in European qualifying competition. But this summer he needs the work, he feels, after a season of mostly sitting. He signed a two-year contract with the Pistons and is determined to prove he can play and hold his own in the world’s most competitive league. And he’ll have September to recover this time.
“I’m comfortable that I can play in this league,” he said. “I have confidence in myself. The last month, not playing, I try to come to the gym every day to work out, to be better, to be stronger, because it’s the only thing I can do. I always trust work, that work always pays off. I will be more experienced next year because I know the routine of the NBA and I think I will be more comfortable.”
Loyer sympathizes with the emotions he knows Datome must be experiencing, going from the mainstay of his team to fighting for scraps in the NBA. What he’s seen of Datome behing the scenes, though, leads him to conclude that when his chance comes he’ll be ready to perform.
“Gigi’s a very serious basketball player,” he said. “You could tell he’s not like a normal rookie that comes in the league. He’s been well schooled over in Europe. He has tremendous work ethic, passion for the game. It’s been, I’m sure, a tough year for Gigi because he hasn’t played as much as he’s wanted to, but to his credit he’s maintained a great work ethic and we think he’s got a bright future.”
Datome hasn’t let frustration weigh him down, as many players might and have, but it’s been tough to watch the team struggle mightily with its perimeter shooting when that’s what he came across the ocean to provide. The promise of a fresh start – a healthy start – keeps him pushing forward.
“I just can’t wait,” he said, pausing for effect, “to have a real chance.”