Niyo: Pistons have a chance to win, grow as Summer League practice heats up

Detroit News

The pieces are intriguing. The possibilities finally are worth considering. And now comes the fun part for everybody — from the front office to the coaching staff to the fans — as the Pistons start putting together this new puzzle.

It started Tuesday as they hit the practice court for the first time, with the young core of last season’s remade roster joined by this year’s rookie class, led by No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham. And it’ll continue for the next couple weeks, as that group heads to Las Vegas for the NBA’s Summer League, where the Pistons tip off against Oklahoma City on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at the Thomas & Mack Center.

But this is more than just a get-to-know-you session, as Cunningham — fresh off his whirlwind draft week — was quick to say Tuesday after playing some 5-on-5 basketball for the first time in quite a while.

“More than anything, we want to win Summer League,” he said of the 10-day, 75 game tournament that features a collection of rookies, young players and roster hopefuls for all 30 NBA teams. “We want to go undefeated as a team. And then on top of that, we just want to take a step forward as far as gelling as a young core, being together, playing for each other.”

And the way Pistons coach Dwane Casey sees it, that’s where this annual event takes on added meaning this summer, particularly since last year’s offseason was wiped out by the pandemic.

Whereas most NBA teams will field a roster full of players just trying to find a home in the league, Detroit’s crew will include three likely starters and a handful of rotational regulars. Second-year center Isaiah Stewart won’t play, coming off an ankle injury suffered while with USA Basketball’s Select Team last month. But Cunningham and second-round pick Luka Garza will join Killian Hayes and Saddiq Bey, along with Sekou Doumbouya, among others.

“The great thing about it is these guys are gonna be a big part of our season,” said Casey, who’ll be in Las Vegas observing while assistant JD DuBois coaches the team. “So it’s not like it’s just going to be a lot of guys coming in trying to make the team. It’s going to be core guys.”

Pieces of the puzzle

It’s that core that has everyone buzzing about the future in Midtown, And the phones ringing, too, with ticket sales picking up ever since the Pistons won the NBA draft lottery.

“I think it’s great for the fanbase,” Casey said. “They’re gonna get a chance to see this group grow from the ground up. There’s not a lot of times you have an opportunity to watch a team grow organically and see ‘em develop like this.”

But how quickly they can, or will, is the question now. It’s one Casey isn’t ready to answer yet, and understandably so as the Pistons are coming off a 20-win season and counting on a starting lineup that may feature four players age 22 or younger. If you ask the head coach about playoff hopes right now, he’ll just smile and shake his head.

“No, I’m not gonna broach that,” Casey said. “Our goal is to continue to grow. But (I understand) those expectations are gonna be there. That’s OK, though. Once this group gets to a certain level, those expectations should be there.”

Casey’s right when he says of his team “they’ve got probably another year to grow and develop.” But the 64-year-old coach is fine with his players deciding not to listen to him about that.

He’s convinced that his best player, Jerami Grant, will return from the Tokyo Olympics better for it, gold medal or not, even with Grant playing a limited role off the bench for Team USA. Casey already has seen the benefits in Bey, who earned NBA All-Rookie honors last season and was part of the Select Team with Stewart this summer before getting called up to join the Olympic squad in exhibition play. He senses it in his confidence and his leadership, and so does Bey, for that matter, saying the entire experience “just helped define and sharpen” his game.

Casey isn’t allowed to talk about any of the other new pieces general manager Troy Weaver has picked up in free agency, signing veteran center Kelly Olynyk, bringing back point guard Cory Joseph and adding forward Trey Lyles. The league’s negotiating window opened Monday but those deals won’t be official until Friday.

But they certainly make sense. Joseph adds stability in the backcourt, thanks to his familiarity with Casey — he played two seasons for him in Toronto — while Olynyk and Lyles both provide some much-needed shooting to a roster that struggled with floor spacing last season. (Garza and fellow second-round pick Isaiah Livers eventually might, too, though Livers is still working his way back from April foot surgery and won’t play in Summer League.)

Battle buddies

Still, the most important part of this upcoming Vegas vacation will be the chance it offers for last year’s lottery pick, Hayes, to begin to develop some chemistry with the new face of the franchise. And it’s more about finding some synergy than it is about defining roles

“I’m not going to put a number on Cade and Killian,” Casey said. “Both of ’em are 1A and 1B. Either one can bring it up. Either one can initiate offense. Either one can run pick and roll. What we want to work to is position-less basketball.”

Which is part of why Cunningham seemed like an ideal fit for Detroit at the top of the draft, and it’s something he showed his new teammates Tuesday at practice.

“He’s versatile,” Bey said, “being able to play all three levels on the offensive end and being able to switch on the defensive end.”

He’ll get a chance to show the rest of the league some of that beginning Sunday. But just as important, his team will get a head start on training camp, which begins in late September.

“I want everybody to leave Summer League feeling like they became a better player and that they became a better piece to this puzzle,” Cunningham said Tuesday, sounding nothing like a 19-year-old rookie. “And then add it to the team so we can go into the regular season feeling good about ourselves. Winning is the No. 1 thing, but individually, hopefully, everybody can leave there feeling like there’s a new confidence going into the season.”

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