When Las Vegas Summer League tips off on Sunday, it’ll mark the first time the event has been held in more than two years.
The Detroit Pistons will have a stacked roster, as 2021 draft picks Cade Cunningham and Luka Garza will join forces with 2020 selections Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee to try to win the championship. They’re setting their expectations high, Cunningham said.
“We want to win summer league, we want to go undefeated as a team,” he said on Tuesday. “On top of that, we want to just take a step forward as far as jelling as a young core, being together, playing for each other. I want everyone to leave Summer League feeling like they became a better player, and then that they became a better piece to this puzzle and add it to this 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.”
Detroit will play five games, giving coaches and fans alike a chance five opportunities to see how the young core looks live. For Cunningham and Garza, it’ll be their first taste of NBA competition. For much of the rest of the roster, it’ll be a glimpse of what they’ve added to their games during the offseason.
Here’s what I’m looking forward to watching:
How will Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes look together?
This will certainly be the highlight of Summer League for most fans. Cunningham and Hayes are the top picks of the Troy Weaver era. They have overlapping skill sets, but there’s enough diversity in each of their games to ease concerns that they won’t fit together.
Let me be clear — the Cunningham-Hayes fit isn’t something the Pistons should be worried about right now. Having two big ball-handlers who can also defend is a good problem to have, and it arguably isn’t a problem at all. Hayes is 6 feet 5, and Cunningham was listed at 6-6 on their official summer league roster. They both have longer wingspans, with Cunningham’s particularly impressive at 7 feet. That adds a lot of value on defense, and there’s reason to believe they will mesh on offense as well.
Hayes had a rough rookie season — he missed 41 games with a torn hip labrum — but began to find his stride late. He has great floor vision and was more comfortable creating for others than he was for himself. Cunningham was a do-it-all point guard at Oklahoma State last season; his ability to shoot makes him an ideal fit next to Hayes, who still has to prove that he can consistently knock down outside shots. But Hayes also said last season he enjoys the freedom of playing off the ball. Hayes has been working with John Beilein this summer to improve his shooting touch. Cunningham can make his life a lot easier on offense, and vice-versa.
They will both be 20 years old when the season tips off in October. The organization has every incentive to let them grow together. There certainly will be occasional struggles as they assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but NBA teams have gambled on young backcourts before without the size and playmaking that Hayes and Cunningham will provide from Day 1.
Can Hayes and Saben Lee knock down outside shots?
Detroit’s pair of rookie point guards both struggled with shooting last season. Hayes hit 27.8% of his 3-point attempts; Lee shot 34.8% but simply didn’t take many . His 23 attempts isn’t a big enough sample size for any conclusions.
Beilein’s Michigan teams were successful, in part, because of how well they shot the ball. He’s working with Detroit’s young players to help them improve their shooting — we’ll see if Hayes and Lee show that in Las Vegas.
Can Luka Garza defend?
If Garza were judged solely on his offense in college, he would’ve been a surefire first-round pick. Garza is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer and was one of the most productive college players over his four-year career. A gifted post scorers and a strong offensive rebounder and screener, he emerged as a good 3-point shooter (44%) as a senior.
Yet, Garza still had to lose 30 pounds ahead of the NBA draft to show NBA teams he can defend at the next level. His lack of mobility on that end hurt his draft stock. Centers who can’t move in space on defense are nearly obsolete in today’s NBA, which rewards teams that can draw opposing big men out of the paint with superior floor spacing. Even the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, had a tough time against the Los Angeles Clippers’ cadre of shooters in the playoffs.
Garza’s offense might translate to the NBA, but he has to prove his defense won’t send him to the bench. Dwane Casey has been complimentary of his effort and energy on defense during practices. We’ll see how that translates to more meaningful competition.
What has Sekou Doumbouya added to his game?
Now entering his third season, Sekou Doumbouya is an enigma for the Pistons. This will be his first full Summer League, after a hamstring injury prevented him from participating in most of the 2019 session and the pandemic canceled last year’s competition. He’s the most experienced player on Detroit’s Las Vegas roster, but he still won’t turn 21 until December.
Arguably no Piston has more to prove than Doumbouya. He was on the cusp of the rotation for most of last season despite being the longest-tenured player , and he hasn’t quite proven he can consistently contribute. He was a below-average shooter and finisher, and although he gives the Pistons size and strength on defense, he wasn’t always a difference-maker there, either. Detroit also has depth at his natural position of power forward. Jerami Grant is an established veteran, and the Pistons agreed to contracts with two players — Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles — who can play power forward.
The Pistons don’t need to rush to a decision. He could spend much of the 2021-22 season with the G League affiliate Motor City Cruise in Midtown, and he won’t enter restricted free agency until 2023 (assuming the Pistons pick up the last remaining team option on his rookie deal). The organization knew he was a project when he was selected 15th overall two years ago. But at some point, he has to show that he’s a player they can build around. He has shown flashes of being an effective cutter, rim-runner and spot-up shooter. But he won’t receive more playing time if he can’t outplay the players ahead of him in the rotation. And he needs to make significant strides to get to that point.