The Detroit Pistons haven't been great this season, which is something that you know, because you're reading an NBA blog after 4 p.m. on a Friday. But one of the team's brightest spots has been Rodney Stuckey, the Detroit guard whose nose for the basket and bruising tweener body drew comparisons to Dwyane Wade coming out of college, but hadn't quite lived up to that billing through four-plus NBA campaigns in the Motor City.
After signing a three-year, $25 million contract extension this offseason, Stuckey's proved to be something of a bargain, turning in the best all-around campaign of his career for a Pistons team that, while bad, has certainly shown signs of improvement under first-year head coach Lawrence Frank. Yes, they're 18-32, but they're fighting. They're pounding the rock, just like EVERYONE ELSE.
Stuckey's improved play this season and role in the potential Pistons turnaround were highlighted earlier this week in a nice profile by USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. In the feature, Zillgitt discusses how Stuckey has for years struggled with seemingly constant change (the Pistons have had four head coaches in Stuckey's five-year NBA career) that hasn't abated persistent losing (despite the uptick, Detroit is headed toward its fourth straight sub-.500 campaign).
"All that stuff took a toll," Stuckey said. So heading into this season, the Eastern Washington product "decided to make a change."
He credits family and friends for his turnaround, and he also went to a psychologist, "just to clear my mind," he said.
"I think it was good for me. It wasn't someone inside my inner circle, and they didn't care," Stuckey said of therapy. "I was going to get the feedback I needed to hear. That really helped out a lot. It was just positive energy. There was too much negative energy." [...]
"There's been times where I've been mad this year where I just calmed down and not let it get to me," said Stuckey, averaging 16.5 points, just a tenth off his career high, and shooting a career best 44.7 [percent].
The advanced numbers bear out the improvement, too. While Stuckey's per-game scoring average has dipped since Zillgitt's story saw print, his per-minute scoring (18.5 points per 36 minutes) and Player Efficiency Rating (19.1, second-highest on the team behind Greg Monroe and 45th-best in the league, according to John Hollinger) are the best of his career. He's also posting career-high True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages, thanks in large part to vastly improved accuracy from beyond the arc — Stuckey, who has never connected on more than three in 10 long balls for a full season, is hitting 35.9 percent of his triples this year.
He's getting to the line more often, averaging 7.3 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes of run, and hitting at an 84.2 percent clip. His assist rate's down, but not that much, considering he went from playing half of Detroit's point guard minutes last year to just 14 percent this year, spending the lion's share of his time off the ball as rookie Brandon Knight runs the show. He's a net positive in terms of adjusted plus-minus, and the Pistons have been just under nine points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than with him off, according to BasketballValue.com. He's just ... better.
Now, how much of that is directly attributable to speaking with a psychologist during the offseason? No one can really know the answer to that question. You can probably chalk up Stuckey's improved performance to any of a number of factors — the coaching change from John Kuester to Lawrence Frank, hours spent working on his jumper in the offseason, getting to play at his more natural two-guard position, the natural maturation that comes with being 25 years old rather than 21, the expanded in-game-option Rolodex that comes from having played 300-plus NBA games, or something else entirely.
The point is, Stuckey himself feels like therapy helped, and that ain't nothing. While the inherent knee-jerk machismo of a lot of athletes and sports fans might regard choices like Stuckey's skeptically, sports psychologists like Dr. Leonard D. Zaichkowsky, whom I interviewed before the 2010 NBA Finals, have had great success in helping players understand how stress impacts performance, how they can process their thoughts and emotions in high-leverage moments, and how they can better channel their energy to produce positive outcomes.
But the application, of course, extends beyond the locker room or playing field — the simple act of talking to someone about what's bothering you and what's got you down can lift burdens and help you feel more at ease, which damn sure can't hurt performance. Here's hoping the demonstrable success Stuckey's found since letting some of that burden go influences other players — and fans, and owners, and writers, and whoever — to go and do likewise. Life's hard. Talking helps.
Hat-tip to Patrick Hayes at PistonPowered.