Grading the Detroit Pistons for 2020-21: Rookie class draws high marks

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons‘ 2020-21 season can’t be accurately summed up by their record. And there’s no question that their 20-52 mark, the second-worst in the NBA, was bad.

But it was a season of growth, after Troy Weaver was hired as general manager last June and promptly proceeded to tear down and rebuild the roster once the offseason started in earnest in November. Eleven players currently on the roster were 23 or younger at the start of the season.

From a rebuild standpoint, there were a lot of positives for Detroit. Many of their young players outperformed expectations, and a few of their veterans did too. We graded every player on the roster, as well as Weaver and head coach Dwane Casey.

SIMPLY THE BEST? Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant a finalist for Most Improved Award

LOOKING TO 2021-22: How Grant plans to take the next step: An All-Star berth

OFFSEASON TO-DO LIST: How they can improve in Troy Weaver’s 2nd year

F Saddiq Bey: B+

Stats: 12.2 points per game, 38% from 3, 6.6 3-point attempts per game.

Bey knocked down 175 3-pointers in 70 games played. If the Pistons had played a full 82 games this season, Bey almost certainly would’ve broken the rookie record for 3-pointers made in a season, which Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set in 2017-18 by knocking down 187. Beyond his outside shooting, Bey also improved as a finisher inside of the arc as the season progressed.

F Tyler Cook: B

Stats: 5.5 ppg, 3.3 rebounds per game.

The former Iowa standout was a fun story this season, signing with an option for next season after two 10-day contracts. He endeared himself to the coaching staff with his energy and talkativeness on defense and threw down a fair share of highlight dunks.

[ Cook grateful for NBA chance with Pistons: ‘A lot of people don’t get that’ ]

G Hamidou Diallo: B

Stats: 11.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 39% from 3.

The third-year wing had the best season of his career and has positioned himself for a solid payday in restricted free agency after closing on a strong note. During his final six games, he averaged 18 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 53.3% overall and 36.4% from 3. He might be the most athletic player on the roster, and is certainly one of its best defenders. Weaver signaled that he could be in Detroit’s long-term plans.

[ Why Diallo can have ‘bright future’ with Pistons ]

F Sekou Doumbouya: C+

Stats: 5.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg.

For most of the season, Doumbouya was on the fringe of the rotation. Doumbouya didn’t always make the most of his minutes. He was better during the last few weeks though, averaging 10.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 45.3% shooting during his final nine games. Doumbouya is at his best when he’s cutting to the basket and using his big frame to finish at the rim. But his 3-point shooting (14.8% on three attempts per game) during that stretch shows that he still has plenty of room for growth. 

G Wayne Ellington: B+

Stats: 9.6 ppg, 42.2% from 3.

For a stretch, Ellington was the most effective scorer on the roster. The veteran shooting guard had one of the best seasons of his career and emerged as one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters during a seven-game January stretch with 44 3-pointers. The Pistons opted not to buy him out after the trade deadline passed, and are open to a reunion next season.

F Jerami Grant: A-

Stats: 22.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.1 bpg.

It’s not often that a career role player is able to make the leap to stardom in Year 7, but the 6-foot-8 forward comfortably stepped up and led the Pistons on both ends of the floor this season after leaving the Denver Nuggets for a three-year, $60 million contract. He’s a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, and the Pistons and Grant both believe he can put himself into the All-Star conversation next year.

G Killian Hayes: C+

Stats: 6.8 ppg, 5.3 apg, 1 steals per game.

Detroit’s top 2020 pick only played 26 games because of a torn labrum in his hip. It was a key reason why the rookie’s season was uneven. He found some momentum after returning in April, with at least five assists in 14 consecutive games. His defense was consistently above-average for a rookie, and he occasionally showed flashes of a versatile offensive game. But he largely struggled to make shots and was tentative to take them; his improvement as a scorer will be key to him having a stronger sophomore campaign.

[ Hayes has a big offseason ahead: ‘I’ve got a lot of work’ ]

G Frank Jackson: A-

Stats: 9.8 ppg, 40.7% from 3.

Jackson was one of Detroit’s best success stories, outperforming his two-way contract by emerging as one of the Pistons’ most reliable scorers. His 40% clip from 3-point range was one of the best on the team, and the best mark of his career by a significant margin. As the season progressed, he showed more comfort as a finisher inside of the arc as well. Like Diallo, he positioned himself well entering restricted free agency.

G/F Josh Jackson: B

Stats: 13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.3 apg.

Jackson, who grew up in Metro Detroit, was something of a Swiss Army knife for the Pistons. He was often one of the better scorers on the team, and was also capable of playing strong perimeter defense. But his offense was hot-and-cold and he averaged as many turnovers as he did assists. When locked in, he was one of the best Pistons. If he can be more consistent next season, it could be the best of his career. 

G Cory Joseph: B+

Stats: 12 ppg, 5.5 apg, 3.2 rpg.

The veteran point guard immediately made his presence felt after arriving in Detroit before the trade deadline, playing 18 minutes in a close loss to the Brooklyn Nets on March 26, less than 24 hours after leaving the Sacramento Kings. Joseph and Casey were already familiar with each other due to their time together with the Toronto Raptors.

G Saben Lee: B

Stats: 5.6 ppg, 3.6 apg.

In a normal year, Lee likely would’ve spent plenty of time in the G League. Instead, Lee was the Pistons’ backup point guard for stretches. He largely outplayed his second-round draft position, showing that he can score and move the ball at an NBA level. The next step for Lee is adding a consistent outside shot, but he has a strong mold to build on. 

[ How Saben Lee got basketball passion from his NFL dad ]

G Rodney McGruder: B

Stats: 5.7 ppg, 45.8% from 3.

McGruder was rarely seen early only appearing in two of Detroit’s first 16 games. But when the Pistons’ guard depth was depleted midseason due to the Derrick Rose trade and injuries, McGruder filled in admirably. He’s an energetic defender and hustle player, and reached double-figures in scoring in four of his final six games before an elbow injury ended his season in late March.

C/F Jahlil Okafor: C

Stats: 5.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg.

Because of knee surgery, Okafor played just 27 games. But even before he underwent the procedure in early February, the center was losing his place in the rotation to Isaiah Stewart. Casey said that Okafor was still recovering from surgery after he returned late in the season, and only regained his place in the rotation when Mason Plumlee was on the bench for rest.

F/C Mason Plumlee: B+

Stats: 10.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.6 apg.

Last offseason, Casey targeted Plumlee as a veteran who could step in and fulfill multiple roles, on the court and off. He put together the best all-around season of his career, setting career highs in rebounds, assists and minutes while tying his career high in points. Plumlee also tallied two triple-doubles, the first of his career. Off the floor, he embraced the role of being a mentor for Detroit’s young roster.

F/G Deividas Sirvydis: C+

Stats: 2.1 ppg, 35.7% from 3.

We rarely saw the rookie shooting guard, but he made a strong impression during the Pistons’ second-to-last game of the season with a 16-point first half against the Nuggets. He showed potential as an outside shooter and even had some impressive drives to the rim. Expect him to spend plenty of time with the Motor City Cruise next season. 

[ Meet Pistons’ mystery man, Deividas Sirvydis ]

G Dennis Smith Jr.: C

Stats: 6.7 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 rpg.

Smith arrived in Detroit in February as part of the Derrick Rose trade. The fourth-year point guard ended up playing just 20 games with the Pistons before his season ended on April 10 because of knee soreness. Smith had a handful of good performances, including a triple-double on March 3. But the Pistons already have two young point guards on the roster in Killian Hayes and Saben Lee, dampening Smith’s odds of returning this fall.

F/C Isaiah Stewart: B+

Stats: 7.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg.

Many draft pundits projected Stewart to go far lower than 16th in the draft. But Troy Weaver believed that he was one of the best center prospects, largely for three reasons — his unrelenting motor, a better outside shot than he showed in college and an underrated ability to move his feet on defense. All three observations held true, as Stewart was impactful as a defender and rebounder almost from the start. By the end of the season, his 3-point shot became a featured part of his game. Like Bey, his chances of making an All-Rookie team appear to be strong. 

[ Origin of ‘Beef Stew’: How a Pistons fan crowned Stewart’s favorite nickname ]

Coach Dwane Casey: B+

Casey has long been respected for his ability to develop and connect with young players, and he certainly did that with this group. Many of Detroit’s first- and second-year players met or exceeded expectations, and Casey’s extension through 2024 illustrates the strong coaching job he did this season and the faith Tom Gores and the front office has in him.

SHAWN WINDSOR: Casey’s contract extension must feel like sweet justice

GM Troy Weaver: A

Nearly all of Weaver’s moves during his first season as GM have paid off. All three of his non-lottery draft picks — Stewart, Bey and Lee — look like they could be in the NBA for a long time. Meanwhile, Hayes had his season interrupted by injury but showed promise toward the end. Both free agency splashes, Grant and Plumlee, delivered the best seasons of their careers. Weaver’s biggest trade deadline acquisition, Diallo, has also shown that he could be worth the second-round pick the Pistons gave up, and then some. There isn’t much to nit-pick here.

JEFF SEIDEL: Weaver showing Lions, Tigers how to rebuild a team the right way

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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