Kelly Tripucka, Isiah Thomas: ignition keys for NBA Pistons

In Detroit, not all T-Birds belong to the Ford Motor Company. At least two of them - forward Kelly Tripucka and guard Isiah Thomas - fly first-class for the Pistons, an aggressive, young team that has finally become a draw in the National Basketball Association.

Physically Tripucka and Thomas are about as alike as a pickup truck and a flashy convertible. Kelly is the guy who makes it look like hard work; Isiah the artist who flows to the basket like syrup running off a pancake. But when you add up their production, it's virtually the same.

Between them the two second-year pros are clever enough offensively to provide the Pistons with close to 50 points a game, and they, along with center Bill Laimbeer, represent Detroit's future. That is unless Kelly, who is due to become a free agent in the spring of 1984, offers his services to the New York Knicks. He indicated this possibility in a statement he made last year to the press.

Tripucka's unrelenting style of play often reminds NBA scouts of John Havlicek when he was the perpetual motion machine of the Boston Celtics. But Thomas, with a jump shot like drifting fog, is the player who is always going to wind up on the team's promotion poster.

Kelly, despite a fine career at Notre Dame that got him named to several All-America teams, was somehow still available when Detroit picked 12th in the 1981 college player draft. Earlier the Pistons had gone for Thomas; in fact, Isiah was the No. 2 player drafted. He had decided to pass up his final two years of eligibility at Indiana for a shot at the NBA's big bucks.

Questioned as to why a player with Tripucka's impressive offensive credentials lasted so long in the draft, assistant Pistons coach Don Chaney replied:

''Anytime a pro team scouts a player like Kelly, who is maybe a little slow, looks like he might have trouble getting his shot off, and is considered in-between as far as size goes, management gets scared. At 6 ft. 6 in., you're never sure whether a kid like Tripucka is a guard or a forward - or whether he even has a position in the pros.

''Until Kelly went through a training camp with us and we saw what he could do, we also had some doubts about him. It's natural. You don't want to gamble your team's future on a high draft pick, who could turn out to be ordinary.

''Of course a good player will make a position for himself no matter what the odds are against him. Only how do you know, when everybody in the league is expressing the same doubts about a prospect, that he's going to be the exception to the rule? I don't mean we didn't like Tripucka. But at first I think maybe we saw more in his attitude than we did in his talent.''

While Thomas didn't come with any guarantee either, nobody had any doubts about Isiah's offense, according to Chaney.

''Thomas was easy to scout,'' Don explained. ''He knew how to penetrate; he could shoot in traffic; and he was ideal for the running game Scotty Robertson (the Pistons coach) was trying to develop. He also had the tools to play defense , if he wanted to. Mostly it was a case of putting him out there and letting him set his own pace.

''If it were possible to keep our five starters in the game at all times, I think we could play consistently with any team in the league, including Philadelphia and Boston. Not too many centers push Bill Laimbeer (6-11, 255) around on the boards; Kent Benson has become a fine forward; and John Long is one of the most underrated guards in the league.''

Chaney says that what the Pistons don't have nearly enough of yet is experience off the bench.

''It's an area that we're constantly working on but one that takes time to build,'' Don said. ''Oh, we'll have stretches when everybody plays well, like in December, when we split four games with the Celtics in 20 days. But we also have occasional nights when we get blown out; when we don't bring nearly enough concentration or aggressiveness to what we do on defense. Yet we're not that far away from being a complete team, and if we were to get even one player in this year's draft who could help right away, perhaps that's all we'd need.''

Meanwhile, Pistons fans will have to make do for now with their T-Birds - Tripucka and Thomas - who still don't have much mileage on them.

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