Detroit Pistons have 10 games left this season. Here are three story lines to follow

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons have just 10 games remaining in the 2020-21 season. Despite the 19-44 record, it could remembered as a successful season five years down the road.

All four of their rookies — Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee — have shown promise. Jerami Grant received All-Star consideration. And the franchise will add another core piece this summer in the NBA draft with perhaps its highest pick since selecting second overall in 2003.

Even though many fans may have their sights set on the offseason already, there’s still much to follow with less than three weeks remaining. Here are three of them:

Where will they finish in the standings?

This is probably the most pertinent story line for Pistons fans. Detroit had the NBA’s fourth-worst record and fourth-best lottery odds entering Wednesday. In a draft that has Cade Cunningham and four other prospects considered to be at least a tier over the rest of the pack, the Pistonswould certainly benefit from moving down the standings and securing better lottery odds.

But the Orlando Magic (18-43) and Oklahoma City Thunder (21-41) have both lost nine of their last 10 games. The Minnesota Timberwolves (19-44) are playing their best basketball of the season and have won six of their last 10. The Cleveland Cavaliers (21-40) have lost eight of their previous 10.

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It appears the Houston Rockets (15-47) will comfortably hold onto the best odds. There could be a lot of jostling between the No. 2 and No. 6 teams in the lottery standings until the season ends on May 16.

Don’t expect the Pistons to make wacky rotation decisions to lose more games, though. They will continue resting their veteran players down the stretch, as Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Cory Joseph and Wayne Ellington will all miss Thursday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. But Detroit will play eight of its final 10 games at home, and we’ve seen the young core win games against the Cavaliers and Thunder this month.

Dwane Casey said he tries not to pay attention to those who root for lottery-bound teams to lose, and he encourages his players not to as well. They’re paid to compete every night, and for the young players, their jobs literally depend on competing every night. They’re not going to intentionally lose winnable games.

“Everybody has an opinion — which is great, which they should — but probably doesn’t coincide with what we’re trying to accomplish as a team or what you’re trying to do as a team or what you’re trying to do as an individual,” Casey said..” And they don’t know you from the next guy. Don’t read it, don’t pay attention to it, don’t put any worth into it because it doesn’t define who you are and what you bring to the team. That’s why I don’t look at it.”

When will Dennis Smith Jr. return?

When the Pistons swapped Derrick Rose for Smith in February, the plan was to give Smith an extended evaluation before the fourth-year point guard enters restricted free agency this summer. Things went according to plan during his first month with the franchise, as he appeared in all 13 games he was eligible for from Feb. 11-March 11.

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Since March 11, Smith has only played in seven of 25 possible games due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and injuries (left knee soreness, spine soreness).

Smith also hasn’t been able to practice because of his sore knee, Casey said on Wednesday. It’s unclear if, or when, Smith will return this season.

“That’s been tough, because again, this was a time for himself to go out and show and be evaluated and get extended playing time,” Casey said. “That’s why it’s so important that Killian came back to make sure they had that opportunity to get the extended playing time, to show and be evaluated going into next year. It’s unfortunate that he’s been hurt, but injuries are something we have to deal with.”

In 20 games with the Pistons, Smith has averaged 7.3 points, 3.7 assists, 2.7 rebounds, a steal and 0.7 blocks in 19.6 minutes per game. He’s had some standout performances — 17 points and six assists against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 26, and a 10-point, 11-assist, 12-rebound triple-double against the Toronto Raptors on March 3. He has shown potential as a versatile two-way point guard, and a few more strong games would go a long way toward establishing him as an offseason target.

“We just have to figure out another day where we can evaluate him, whether it’s our last few games, I don’t exactly know when he’s going to be back, you’d have to talk to our medical people,” Casey said. “We need to get him back on the court to get a fair, long evaluation of Dennis. Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to do that.”

Will Killian Hayes have a breakout scoring game?

Since returning from a torn hip labrum on April 3, Hayes has looked much better than he did in the first seven games of the season. He’s consistently playing above-average defense, pulled off a handful of passes few players in the NBA can, and looks more comfortable as a scorer.

Early in the season, Casey often said that Hayes’ defense is ahead of his offense. That has held true, even though Hayes has improved. In his 10 games since returning, he’s averaging 6.5 points, five assists and 1.6 steals in 24 minutes per game while shooting 38% overall and 23.5% from 3. He’s only attempting 0.7 free throws per game in that span.

Hayes has a versatile offensive tool set, but hasn’t put everything together in one game yet. He can knock down spot-up and step-back 3-pointers. His floater is becoming more consistent. He’s big enough to bully smaller guards when getting to the rim. The Pistons aren’t putting any pressure on him to carry the scoring load yet, but a big scoring night — his career-high in points is 12 — could give him some momentum entering a pivotal offseason of development.

“His shooting hasn’t come around yet,” Casey said. “It will. Coming back from being out that long, it’s probably the last thing to come around. But he did an excellent job. He’s doing a lot of little things each game, he’s doing little things, being where he’s supposed to be defensively, talking a little bit more, making the point guards go back to get the ball in transition where we cut down on the turnovers. He’s doing a lot of little leadership things that a lot of rookies are usually a little bit behind on.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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