AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Marreese Speights was a starter at the University of Florida last season, so that part is not new.

But starting for the 76ers is brand-new.

The 6-10 rookie did that for the first time last night against the Detroit Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Coach Maurice Cheeks decided on Speights as the replacement for the injured Elton Brand at power forward, with Samuel Dalembert remaining at center. Brand, who strained his right hamstring in Wednesday night's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, did not make trip, and also has been declared out for tonight's game against the New Jersey Nets in the Wachovia Center.

"Marreese has made a huge progression, picking up different things during the games," Cheeks said before last night's game. "That was evident in Chicago [Tuesday night], because he played [a season-high 26] minutes. I wouldn't have known how many, I just knew he played a lot."

Speights contributed 11 points and eight rebounds in the overtime victory over the Bulls, but played slightly less than 6 minutes in Wednesday night's home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Going into last night's game, he was averaging 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17 games.

"We like him out on the floor," said Cheeks, who has alternated Speights and Theo Ratliff as the backup centers, using the veteran Ratliff primarily for defensive purposes. "He still has to pick up the [pro] game; he's still figuring that part out. But I like the things he does. He's not as good as [the Pistons'] Rasheed Wallace; he doesn't have the distance right now, but he can step out and make a shot, and he can post up."

Speights was a reserve with Florida's 2007 NCAA championship team, and averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.36 blocks in 36 games last season.

"[Cheeks] has got a lot of confidence in me to come in and back up Elton," Speights said. "I'm going to play my game, do the best I can. I don't think it'll be that much of an adjustment; it's just go out and play basketball - anything coach puts me out there to try and do."

Brand, averaging team highs of 16.7 points and 10 rebounds, came out of the Lakers' game in the third quarter and did not return.

"It looked to me like he was running a little slower," Cheeks said. "The way Elton is, if I hadn't taken him out, he'd have continued to play. I just kind of saw it. I didn't know he was hurt." *