Five things to watch as the Pistons open preseason play vs. the Knicks

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

Detroit basketball is back.

After exactly nine months of hiatus, the Pistons will play for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NBA season in March. Most of the league continued, but the Pistons were among the eight teams excluded from the restart in the Orlando bubble.

The Pistons open the preseason against the New York Knicks for two games, Friday and Sunday, at Little Caesars Arena. With almost a completely different roster and excitement about the new faces new general manager Troy Weaver has brought in, there’s a ton of intrigue packed into an exhibition opener.

Although there won’t be any fans in the arena, the Pistons will kick off the preseason with some question marks. Here are five things to watch for Friday’s exhibition opener:

1. Blake Griffin

After an All-NBA performance in 2018-19, Griffin missed the first 10 games last season because of a knee injury. He played in just 18 games and had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. From the first game he played last season, he didn’t quite look like himself.

Since his surgery in February, Griffin has been working his way back to playing shape. By all accounts, he’s trimmed down and is at 100 percent. Just seeing Griffin being able to play and run up and down the court without pain will be a sigh of relief for Casey and general manager Troy Weaver.

Almost no one is expecting Griffin to get back to his All-NBA form quickly, but if he can show some progress this season, it’ll be yet another bounce back from an injury that some thought might send him toward the end of his career.

In the mist of a pandemic, Griffin is as anxious as anyone to get back to playing.

 “It’s going to be a different experience,” Griffin said. “I’m just ready to play some basketball.”

2. The rookies                                               

The Pistons’ four rookies will be a big attraction.

Obviously, much of the attention will be on Killian Hayes, the No. 7 overall pick. He’s the heir apparent and future face of the franchise. The 6-foot-5 point guard, only 19 years old, likely will be in the starting lineup and will have an opportunity to make some mistakes without having to look over his shoulder constantly.

Hayes is a left-hander, which will take some getting used to, but the thing to watch is how much he drives right and how comfortable he looks in the offense.

Saddiq Bey likely will find some playing time at both forward spots with the second unit, rotating between the forward spots. One thing to watch is how he and second-year forward Sekou Doumbouya balance their minutes. They play the same positions and whether there’s progress from Doumbouya since last season will be another thing to monitor.

Isaiah Stewart looks to be the third center, so his minutes may be somewhat limited, but the Pistons seem optimistic about the 16th pick. By some accounts, he’s had a good week of training camp, so he could find his way on the court as a reward.

Saben Lee, the second-round pick, also could find his way into some minutes on the court. How his quickness and athleticism translate will be interesting to see, even if it’s only in small doses initially.

3. The new guys

Another player to watch will be Jerami Grant, who was the Pistons’ biggest pickup in free agency.

He’s a versatile forward who could become a huge piece on both ends of the court with his athleticism and ranginess. Grant has improved his 3-pointer and if he can step in and be an offensive go-to guy, it changes what the frontcourt can do.

Mason Plumlee, who also was Grant’s teammate with the Denver Nuggets, could also be a starter. He’s thought of as a leader and culture-creator, so how that manifests with his talking and being an example on the court will be something to watch. Can he be a valuable screener for Hayes and others?

Josh Jackson, Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington and others also deserve a look as potential rotation fits.

4. The rotation

With only four returning players from last season, there’s a lot of intrigue about how things will work out in the rotation.

Casey warned not to pay too much attention to anything in the early part of the preseason, which would be wise. Still, seeing Hayes start and who’s the initial starter at shooting guard will be good starting points.

The assumption is that Derrick Rose, Bey, Doumbouya and Jahlil Okafor will be in the second group, with several others sprinkled in during the preseason to get a look at what chemistry this roster can develop. The depth chart may go even deeper through the first few games of the regular season, at least. How those position competitions look early will be worth watching.

5. Silence is golden

There won’t be any fans at Little Caesars Arena, which will make for a surreal experience for basketball.

There were hints of it in the Orlando bubble, where they eventually allowed some friends and family to attend, but not having the presumptive home-court advantage of fans — with their cheers and boos — will be a different environment.

Josh Jackson said this week that he thought having no fans could be a benefit for the rookies, because it’ll give them one less thing to worry about. That cuts both ways, though. There won’t be jeers for their mistakes, but they’ll also have to create their own energy during the lulls.

Twitter: @detnewsrodbeard

Pistons vs. Knicks

Tipoff: 7 Friday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: It’s the opener of a two-game set against the Knicks, one of the last teams the Pistons played before the NBA season paused in March. It’ll be a matchup of two top-eight picks, with Killian Hayes and Obi Toppin.

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