Pistons rookie Saddiq Bey shaped by humble beginnings, ‘hard-working’ attitude

Detroit News

Detroit — Pistons rookie Saddiq Bey is used to not being in the spotlight. It’s not a position that he naturally gravitates toward, but with the season he’s having, he may not be able to stay in the background for much longer.

Even among the Pistons’ three first-round draft picks last year, Bey was the last taken. Killian Hayes was picked seventh, they traded to get center Isaiah Stewart at No. 16 and finally made another deal to get Bey 19th.

Bey wasn’t the experts’ pick to have the type of rookie season he’s having, as one of the top players in the draft class. He ranks sixth in scoring among rookies and set a new franchise record for 3-pointers in a season by a rookie with 126 through 55 games. He also earned an honor as NBA player of the week, a rarity for a rookie.

Still, it sometimes seems uncomfortable for Bey to be in the spotlight, as if all the attention is unwarranted. He’d much rather get back to working on his game than spend time talking about the success he’s had.

It’s that humility that has helped elevate him to one of the core pieces of the Pistons’ rebuild.

From humble beginnings in Prince George County in Maryland, where he grew up with a single mother, Bey has had an interesting road to the NBA. It’s the same county that Kevin Durant, Victor Oladipo and Pistons teammates Jerami Grant and Rodney McGruder call home, and it gave Bey a blueprint.

As a freshman, Bey attended DeMatha High School, a national powerhouse. He was slight of build and didn’t make the varsity team, but he hit a growth spurt that became the harbinger of his improvement on the court.

“I might have been 5-8, but they gave me 5-9 on the roster,” Bey told The Detroit News. “It was gradual, year by year. The biggest (spurt) I probably had was from 5-9 to 6-3 and then 6-3 to 6-5 and 6-5 to 6-7.”

Bey has said that growth spurt contributed to his awkward low-arcing jump shot, which he still has. As a sophomore, he moved to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., known for its rigorous academic standards and famous alumni, including Sasha and Malia Obama, along with Chelsea Clinton. That structure helped Bey become more serious about academics, and his athletic future changed as well.

As he developed and had a breakout on the AAU circuit in the summer before his season year, Bey became a college prospect. He initially committed to North Carolina State, but later reopened his recruitment after the school had an investigation for NCAA violations. Although Bey had two good seasons at Villanova, coach Jay Wright initially passed on him.

Coming off winning a national title in 2018, Villanova projected to have a couple of scholarships open, but Wright said they were honest with Bey and his mother and told them that he couldn’t offer him extensive playing time. After winning the title, they had four players leave instead of two, so Wright had to scramble to fill the roster spots, and the focus went back to Bey.

“We loved him in high school, but then we had other guys commit, so we had scholarships available, but we didn’t have roster spots where there would be a clear path (to play) for him,” Wright said. “We knew we were passing on a good player, and when those guys left early, we were like, ‘Shoot, you know we passed on Saddiq and now we could have used him.

“And then, that happens with the FBI (and N.C. State) and his high school coach calls us and we were like, ‘We lucked out, we just lucked out.’”

The Wright choice

At Villanova, Bey stayed in the background and made his mark on the defensive side of the ball, not wanting to make waves with the established upperclassmen on the roster who already had defined roles.

“Saddiq never said anything, but he just picked up all of our defensive concepts really quickly. We weren’t counting on starting him as a freshman, but he started as a freshman because he got everything defensively, and he never said a word,” Wright said. “One time during the season, he said to one of our other players: ‘I know on this team my quickest path to playing is to learn everything we’re doing defensively; that’s going to get me on the floor.’

“I never said that to him — and I never said it to the team — and he just picked it up intellectually, immediately, and focused his efforts on that.”

Wright points to a game at Marquette during Bey’s freshman season as the revelation. Villanova was down by one point in the final minute and Bey was defending Markus Howard, one of the top scorers in the country. Bey got a steal near halfcourt and gave his team a shot to win the game. Wright looked to a senior for the final shot, and they lost, but Bey’s made an impression.

It’s a different memory for Bey, who focuses on the final play more than the steal.

“I remember the stop. I was angry because we lost, but I think it was my fault on the last play. I didn’t stay corner; I went to crash, and I didn’t give my man an outlet, and that still hurts me to this day when I think about it,” Bey said. “I think about both of those plays because we should have won that game.”

The big decision

After two standout seasons at Villanova, Bey was projected as a first-round pick in the NBA draft, but he had a big obstacle to overcome: his mother.

Dr. Drewana Bey is an instructional superintendent in the Washington, D.C. Public Schools. She also played college basketball at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1990s and wanted Saddiq to play basketball as well, but there had to be a balance.

“When he was a baby, I put a book in one hand and a basketball in the other, and he’s played ever since,” she said in an interview in November for her alma mater.

“He’s just a hard-working kid; nothing has ever been handed to him. He’s always had to work for it and always had to continue to have a mindset of trying to improve and get better.”

She didn’t want him to forego his education, even for an NBA career, which is counter-intuitive to most parents of college stars — and it came as a shock to Wright.

“She’s a bright person that understood the business aspect of it, but she’s such an educator, an academician, that she really struggled with him giving up on getting his degree on time,” Wright said. “He had a 3.75 (grade-point average) his last semester, and he’s really bright and very responsible, so you know he’s going to get his degree, but she still really, really struggled with it.”

A mother’s love

Bey owes a lot of who he is, both on and off the court, to his mother. Although she was his harshest critic, Drewana knew the pitfalls that were ahead in trying to balance basketball and academics. Those are the hard lessons that many rising stars don’t get from their entourages, but Drewana wanted her son to have the best future he could have.

“She’s my rock. She sacrificed everything for me and I’m going to try pay her back,” Bey said. “She did everything for me that I needed. I do it for her as well. I want her to be able to do the things she wants to do in life. She means everything to me.”

Those lessons that his mother taught him to stick with Saddiq even as an NBA player, as does the gratitude for helping him get there.

“When I was younger, she was on me so much. Sometimes, it would bring me to tears We used to have the long car rides home. Usually, moms try to coddle and care for you, but she was on me hard, and it helped,” Bey said. “She knows I want to play the game and if I want to play the game, not to waste any time or any moment, so I had to learn that at a young age.”

As a symbol of that gratitude, in his sophomore season at Villanova, Saddiq switched from No. 15, which he wore in high school and as a freshman, to No. 41, which he wears with the Pistons.

“It was really special to think that he thought enough that he would want to wear my number and continue the legacy,” Drewana said. “I appreciated it and it kind of solidified who he is as a person — he’s very loyal and very close to family.

“He’s pretty sentimental, just like I am, and I didn’t realize it until he got older. Those kinds of things mean something to us.”

With his stoic personality, Bey doesn’t typically show anything more than an occasional smile. He keeps his emotions inside, but during this rookie season, he’s let what he does on the court do the talking for him.

The spotlight is still waiting for him.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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