Detroit Pistons training camp begins Tuesday and 10 days later, they will begin their preseason schedule.
After such a long layoff, it almost feels as though the universe will conspire to find another way to push the season back. With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country, it’s a genuine worry.
But following an extremely active free agency and trade period, the Pistons enter the 2020-21 season with a very different roster than at the end of last season. Only five players return — Sekou Doumbouya, Blake Griffin, Svi Mykhailiuk, Derrick Rose and two-way forward Louis King. Head coach Dwane Casey and his staff will have roughly three weeks before the regular season tips off to acclimate the new players and organize his depth chart.
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It isn’t much time, especially with four rookies drafted less than two weeks ago who did not have the benefit of a summer league. But going off of recent comments from Casey and general manager Troy Weaver, trends from last season and some intel, we can put together a general idea of what the depth chart could look like and what roles certain players could play next season.
PG: Killian Hayes, Derrick Rose
SG: Svi Mykhailiuk, Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder
SF: Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson, Dzanan Musa
PF: Blake Griffin, Sekou Doumbouya,
C: Mason Plumlee, Isaiah Stewart, Jahlil Okafor
The Pistons have some positional versatility. Wright can play both guard positions, Grant can play both forward positions and Mykhailiuk can play either wing spot. Doumbouya, Bey and Jackson can also play multiple positions.
Grant and Griffin can both play center in small lineups, and Casey also teased that the Pistons could eventually use Doumbouya as a small-ball center. Doing so would reduce the number of minutes available for Plumlee, Okafor and Stewart. The former two are traditional centers who don’t space the floor. Stewart, a rookie, flashed some shooting ability last season at Washington.
Griffin’s (limited?) role
By all indications, Griffin is healthy and ready to go for training camp following an 11-month layoff. He underwent surgery on his left knee in January to address soreness, which noticeably impacted his performance during the 18 games he played last season. In August, Griffin said he feels a “world of difference” in his knee compared to January.
“Didn’t really have much push-off last season, I was trying to fight through it,” Griffin said. “Got that taken care of. Strength is way up. My main focus is still strengthening and still working on explosiveness, but also being smart about it and not doing too much too soon just because, at some point, we will have a long season ahead of us.”
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But it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pistons ease Griffin in, rather than letting him play 30-plus minutes a night to start the season. He averaged a career-low 28.4 minutes per game last season. With an abbreviated training camp and preseason schedule this year, the Pistons could exercise even more caution.
A reduced workload for Griffin could open up more time for other players. Grant and Doumbouya spent the majority of their minutes at power forward last season, per Cleaning the Glass, and Jackson played most of his minutes at power forward during the 2018-19 season.
Rookie’s role from Day 1
When the Pistons introduced their rookie class to the public last Wednesday, Weaver and Casey both mentioned that Hayes, 19 but with three years of pro experience, should be ready to contribute immediately. Casey preferred bringing Rose off of the bench last season and Delon Wright has been a backup for most of his career, setting the table for Hayes as the starter on opening night.
“He’s been around the game for a long time and playing over in the European league there helped him,” Casey said. “There is a learning curve to the NBA, but he’s got a head start.”
Given that part of Detroit’s offseason seemed geared toward bringing in a center who could make the game easier for Hayes, it makes sense that Casey would start Hayes and Plumlee to maximize their time on the floor together.
If Bey can shoot …
The presumed starting lineup is light on spacing. Mykhailiuk and Grant are above-average shooters, but Griffin is coming off of a down year, Plumlee is a non-shooter and Hayes’ range is one of his bigger question marks entering the season. Wright and Ellington are also proven shooters, but the list ends there.
Bey hit 45.1% of his 3-pointers last season at Villanova on 5.6 attempts per game, and 37.4% as a freshman. If his jumper immediately translates to the NBA, Casey may not have a choice but to play him. If Griffin slumps from 3 again, it’s possible that Bey will be the best shooting Pistons forward after Grant. The rookie has a clear path to playing time if he can knock down his shots.
Big year for Doumbouya
Doumbouya started last season in the G League, but finished it with the Pistons after injuries carved out a role for him. He had some good games, but his overall performance was that of a rookie who wasn’t quite ready for the NBA. He shot 39% from the floor, 28.6% from 3, wasn’t an impactful defender and didn’t contribute much else offensively.
He enters the season with some buzz. Casey praised his performance and work ethic during the Pistons’ in-market bubble in September. And considering that Weaver had no qualms parting ways with Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas two weeks ago, it’s certainly a vote of confidence that Doumbouya is still on the roster.
It could be premature to expect a large role for Doumbouya this season, though. Casey still talks about Doumbouya as though he’ll spend time in whatever G League exists this season, which would make sense. The Pistons are investing heavily to bring their own G League team, the Motor City Cruise, to Detroit in time for the 2021-22 season. They view the G League as an integral part of their player development program. If Doumbouya isn’t ready to contribute, Casey won’t make it a priority for him to see the floor unless the roster is hit by the injury bug again.
The depth chart looks a lot less crowded once you consider that Doumbouya could have a reduced role to start the season. It opens time for Grant to play more power forward, his natural position. It also creates an opportunity for Josh Jackson, who showed promise in Memphis last season, to see a bigger role.
Doumbouya is still part of the Pistons’ young core, but the roster moves indicate that similar last season, he’ll have to earn his minutes.
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