Detroit Pistons struggling to win, but young core shows promise when given the opportunity

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Pistons have one of the NBA’s youngest rosters. By design, Dwane Casey’s rotation doesn’t always reflect that. 

The plan for the Pistons this season is to compete to win while fostering a competitive culture — though they’ve lost 13 of their first 16 games this season.

With two future Hall of Famers on the roster, in Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, getting their share of minutes, along with several veterans relied upon to set a positive tone, opportunities can sometimes be hard to come by for the young players.

But in the second game of a back-to-back, both Griffin and Rose were held out of Saturday’s 114-110 loss to the 76ers at Little Caesars Arena, opening an opportunity for the rest of the younger players. 

The game had eight lead changes and 14 ties. But more importantly, several players who had fallen toward the bottom of the Pistons’ rotation had strong contributions. Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk and Saben Lee all had strong performances, and Saddiq Bey started for the first time since Jan. 4.

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The Pistons held their own against one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, and Casey was impressed with what he saw. 

“We did everything the right way,” he said. “Again, the problem with youth is down the stretch you have to learn how to close the deal. What play can I get away with in crunch time versus the second quarter? Those are the things we gotta learn and the only way to learn is by going through the fire, and that’s what we’re doing right now and unfortunately against some really good teams.”

Bey started the season strong and was arguably the best of all of Detroit’s under-22 players, but fell into a slump this past week. He was only 4-for-25 (15.4%) shooting in his last six games. After routinely playing more than 20 minutes a night, he played fewer than 10 in two of his last three games entering Saturday. 

But Bey returned to form against the Sixers, scoring 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting and 2-for-5 from 3 in 19 minutes. Before the game, Casey said he wasn’t worried about Bey’s recent performances. The rookie answered with his strongest game in nearly two weeks. 

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Casey noted that Doumbouya and Mykhailiuk, in particular, played well considering they were on the cusp of falling out of the rotation altogether. Mykhailiuk had come close to picking up his first “Did Not Play” of the season twice in his previous four games. He appeared at the very end of last Saturday’s blowout against the Miami Heat, and wasn’t inserted into Friday’s loss against the Houston Rockets until the last play, when the Pistons needed a game-winner, and his ability to space the floor.

Mykhailiuk was only shooting 37.4% overall and 31.9% from 3 entering Saturday’s game, but finished with 15 points while shooting 4-for-6 overall, 3-for-4 from 3 and 4-for-6 from the free-throw line in 18 minutes. 

“I love to see that,” Wayne Ellington said. “I was encouraging Svi all night tonight, just being able to come in and be prepared, be ready. It’s not an easy job, it’s not easy at all. To do that speaks about his professionalism and his preparation. It’s one of those things that can eat at you if you’re not strong mentally. That also is a credit to his mentality. I see him every day putting in the work and eventually it’s going to pay off.” 

Doumbouya might have had his strongest game of the year, finishing with 13 points on 4-for-10 shooting in 19 minutes. Since preseason, he has showcased improved feel on when to cut to the basket and create easy scoring opportunities for himself. He was active without the ball Saturday, and his teammates did a good job rewarding him when he attacked lanes to the basket. 

His path to playing time has been tougher than some of his teammates, since the two highest-paid players on the roster, Griffin and Jerami Grant, play his natural position of power forward. He capitalized on Griffin’s absence. 

“All he needs is the opportunity and chance, and he took advantage of it,” Casey said. “I’m happy and proud of the way he played and he defended, rebounded, he was out there talking, leading in a positive way and just did a lot of good things. The future’s going to be bright for Sekou in this league.” 

Lee also had a promising showing with two points, four assists and no turnovers in 12 minutes. Like Doumbouya, Lee has established veterans in front of him in point guards Rose and Delon Wright, as well as lottery pick Killian Hayes during the first two weeks of the season. 

The Pistons have lost four straight, but they played with more consistency through all four quarters on Saturday. They didn’t have to battle back from a 20-point deficit, as they did on Friday. And they didn’t lose 17 and 19-point leads, as they did earlier in the week. But they trailed by as many as 11 points in the fourth after exchanging leads through the first three quarters.  

“We got away from that down the stretch and making the good decisions offensively, and shot ourselves in the foot,” Casey said. “We ask for the intensity, effort, focus. Defensively I thought we laid it on the line, everybody did. I love the effort, I love the togetherness guys played with. We continue to do that, good things are going to happen.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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