Detroit Pistons likes and dislikes: Josh Jackson might be the steal of free agency

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Four games in, things are going according to plan for the Detroit Pistons. 

The goal wasn’t for the Pistons (0-4) to remain winless a week into the season; coach Dwane Casey isn’t happy, and neither are the players. They’re competing to win, and Casey’s rotations have reflected that. 

But the goal of the offseason was not to build a roster that can win a lot of games now; it was to create an environment that will set the Pistons up for greater success in the future. They hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. They’ve taken several paths in the past decade to snap that streak. They’ve missed on multiple lottery picks, been on the wrong side of big trades and overpaid in free agency. 

WINDSOR: Pistons aren’t winning, but they’re showing they nailed NBA draft, free agency

They have a new general manager in Troy Weaver, and a new strategy — patience. Weaver’s first offseason focused on adding new players to the young core, and bringing in veterans who can set a productive tone during games and in the locker room. Rather than immediately hand the franchise over to the young players, the Pistons want their veterans to dictate the daily mindset and approach. 

“Our philosophy is build up with the young guys plus some veteran mentors, teachers, guys who are productive and very good players,” Casey said during preseason. “Our veterans have done an excellent job of teaching, showing the young guys what to do, how to do it, demonstrating it by their actions and their habits in practice. For me, that’s how I know how to build a situation, build a team. That’s what we did in Toronto, we had the veteran guys out there to teach, talk. That’s what we’re doing and that’s the value in it, because if you leave young guys out there on their own, they’re learning bad habits.” 

The Pistons are following their plan. Returning veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose have had prominent roles in the rotation, and want to win. Newcomers Jerami Grant, Delon Wright and Mason Plumlee have played significant minutes, and all have a history of winning. The Pistons have been competitive in all four games, and the remade roster is still less than a month removed from its first day of training camp.

Regardless of the final record, this season will be defined by the progress the young players make. The organization has made it clear that’s the primary focus, rather than chasing the playoffs. The rookies have shown enough flashes to give fans hope, and the season is young. 

Here’s what I like and don’t like a week into the season. 

THE VISION: Troy Weaver building team to honor Pistons’ robust basketball heritage

THE OWNER: Tom Gores says: GM Troy Weaver ‘owned’ the offseason

What I like: Promising signs from rookies

Casey made it clear the rookies would have to beat out veterans to earn more playing. 

Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey aren’t among the Pistons’ leaders in minutes. Hayes, a starter, is sixth on the roster in total minutes played and eighth in usage rate. Bey didn’t make his debut until the second game, and Stewart made his debut during the third game.

Like the majority of rookies, it has been a mixed bag for the trio. Ordinarily, four months separate the draft and the tip-off of the regular season. Their transition to the NBA was compressed into 35 days. 

Still, they’ve shown glimpses of why the Pistons targeted them as the future of the franchise. 

Hayes has more assists (14) than turnovers (10), and has shown some of the vision that led to him being one of the top point guards in his draft class. But his defense is ahead of his offense right now. He has had a tough run of opposing point guards to compete against: Trae Young and Stephen Curry back-to-back this week, and Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and D’Angelo Russell last week. Hayes moves his feet and uses his body well, has the strength and will to fight through screens, and has a good understanding of angles. He’s still finding his comfort level as a scorer — averaging five points per game on 27.6% shooting — but his defense is ahead of schedule.

After picking up a “Did Not Play” in the season opener, Bey started the first game of his career Monday against the Hawks. His quick trigger from outside has been his biggest contribution so far. He’s 5-for-14 (35.7%) on 3-pointers, and made three of his five attempts against the Warriors on Tuesday. Standing 6 feet 8, he’s one of the bigger wings on the roster and has allowed Casey to play some big lineups. His efficiency on 2-pointers is a work in progress (1-for-8), but he’s filling a need as a shooter. 

Stewart has played the fewest minutes of the rookies, but might have been the most impressive on a per-minute basis. He has grabbed 15 rebounds in 38 minutes, nine offensively. Stewart makes rebounding look fun. He skips and hops around the rim in anticipation of the missed shot. He throws his body into opposing players and seems to thrive when he’s in a crowd. It’s infectious. While watching him, you forget that at 6-9, he’s undersized for the center position. It hasn’t hampered his ability to rebound.

PERFECT FIT: How Pistons got ‘inside scoop’ on Isaiah Stewart, a great fit for this rebuild

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Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart on playing 4th-quarter minutes in 2nd NBA game

Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart on battle with fellow rookie James Wiseman of Warriors, playing 4th-quarter minutes in his 2nd NBA game, Dec. 29, 2020.

Detroit Pistons

Josh Jackson a worthy reclamation project

The Christian Wood parallels began for Jackson right after he signed with the Pistons. Wood was Detroit’s breakout player last season, showing he could be an offensive focal point after five years of bouncing around the NBA. 

Jackson’s first three seasons were marred by controversy and underwhelming play, but toward the end of last season with the Memphis Grizzlies, he began to showcase his all-around game. He has picked up where he left off so far, averaging 17.3 points on 50.9% shooting, six rebounds, two assists and a steal. Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup on Monday with Griffin resting, and held onto his starting position Tuesday with Griffin back in the lineup. 

The Pistons signed Jackson, a Detroit native, using the entire Room Exception for a two-year, $9.8 million deal, and it is paying off big time.

Casey is a big fan of Jackson, 23, and hasn’t shied away from comparing him to Wood.

“I love the way he’s been a bright surprise for us,” Casey said Monday. “He’s that diamond in the rough that you gotta find every once in a while to keep in your program and grow with the program. He’s doing that. He’s been a model citizen, he’s doing everything we ask. Really proud of Josh, the way he’s approached the game.”

Jerami Grant more than living up to his contract

Only three players in recent NBA history have averaged 2.5 made 3-pointers and 1.5 blocks per game during an entire season: Kevin Durant in 2017-18, and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis last season. Durant is one of the most unique players in history, and Jackson and Porzingis are two of the players epitomizing the “unicorn” era of bigs who defend the rim and stretch the floor on offense. 

Four players are averaging those numbers early in this season: Obi Toppin, Mikal Bridges, Michael Porter Jr. and Grant. History suggests a few of those players will fall off by the end of the season, but it highlights Grant’s two-way versatility.

Hey, haters: Jerami Grant is proving his contract was worth Pistons’ investment ]

Grant, 26,  is also averaging a steal per game. In NBA history, only he and Porter are the ones to check all three boxes so far. Few players are capable of what they’ve done so far, and historically, Grant’s steal and block rates per 100 possessions suggest he has a chance to finish the season averaging more than 1.5 blocks and a steal per game. 

Through four games, Grant is averaging 22.8 points, six rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 blocks and a steal, and shooting 47% overall, 36.7% from the 3-point line and 85.7% at the line. He has been the Pistons’ best player, and it’s looking like a good signing for Weaver.

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Detroit Pistons’ Jerami Grant: ‘We’re right there at the end of games’

Jerami Grant answers questions after his 27 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks in loss to Warriors, praises Isaiah Stewart, Dec. 29, 2020.

Detroit Pistons

What I don’t like: Encouraging starts, poor finishes

We don’t need advanced stats to know the Pistons have been poor at closing out games. They had a 12-point lead in the second quarter against the Warriors, an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and nine-point lead in the first overtime against the Cavaliers, and a 12-point lead in the third quarter against the Timberwolves. 

The Pistons have a minus-20.6 net rating in fourth quarters so far, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA. Sure it’s early, but it illustrates their failure late in games. 

Slow starts for Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya

Both of Detroit’s returning young players have had rough starts. Mykhailiuk is shooting 29.6% overall and 4-for-22 from behind the arc. He has been surpassed in the rotation by Bey. It’s unlikely Mykhailiuk shoots that poorly for the entire season, but it’s not an ideal beginning for the sharpshooter who hit 40.4% of his 3s last season.

After a strong preseason, Doumbouya has also struggled to establish himself in the rotation. He’s shooting 6-for-20, and is 1 of 4 on 3s. Part of the issue could be he tweaked his ankle during Saturday’s game against the Cavs. He was questionable before Monday’s game, but hasn’t missed a game yet. 

Unfortunate injuries

Both Hayes and Griffin left Tuesday’s game with injuries. Hayes suffered a right ankle sprain in the third quarter, and Griffin entered concussion protocol after receiving a bump to the mouth in the second quarter. It isn’t clear if either player will miss extended time, but it’s an unfortunate development nonetheless. Hayes is early into his rookie season, and Griffin is re-establishing himself after a season marred by injury. 

There’s never a good time for two core players to suffer injuries, but the Pistons are entering what will likely be the toughest part of their schedule. Their next two weeks include consecutive games against the Boston Celtics, three games against the Milwaukee Bucks and games against the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz.

Jahlil Okafor has also missed two games with a foot injury. The Pistons suffered a lot of injuries last season, and they’re certainly hoping this season isn’t trending in that direction.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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