Just listening to the Pistons’ rookies in Summer League, they sound as if they want to run through a wall for Pistons and coach Dwane Casey.
And this isn’t even the regular season or training camp yet.
It’s Summer League.
The words and the sentiment are enough to make Pistons fans want to run through a wall, too. It’s the can-do attitude, the blue-collar work ethic that is in the line worker for one of the car companies. It’s the hustling spirit of a young entrepreneur who works a second job to make more money.
The Pistons’ rookie contingent has it already, and it’s not just some manufactured cliché to fit a marketing slogan. Cade Cunningham and Luka Garza already have earned their titles as Detroiters.
They have that swagger that uses their strengths as armor and their perceived weaknesses as opportunities to build into strengths.
And it’s only Summer League.
Take the slow-footed 6-foot-11 center Garza, who already has the chip on his shoulder after being selected national player of the year in college but falling to No. 52 before the Pistons picked him.
“I want to show everybody that I’m a guy who can help a team win in the NBA. Obviously, this is Summer League, but I feel confident I can have this positive impact on my team in the regular season as well,” Garza said after the Pistons’ win over the Lakers on Saturday. “Whatever role it means, I know for me, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to get to where I want to go because I’m going to work as hard as I can.
“And I feel like I’m just really grateful and blessed that the Detroit Pistons took a chance on me when, obviously, 51 other picks passed on me.”
That’s a slight that sounds like Garza’s daily affirmation after yoga — and maybe what he has for breakfast every morning, with a side order of hard work and dedication. There’s a certain self-awareness that Garza possesses that is reminiscent of Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer, and Garza plays with some of the same grit.
There’s something there with Garza that resonates with the mantra of a rebuilding team and the spirit of fighting through adversity, even if this projects to be another losing season for the Pistons.
“Every guy in the NBA and the world is going to beat me in a sprint on a 3/4 court. I know that. But are they going to run that fast in a game? No. I’m going to run that fast — I’m going to run as fast as I can every down,” Garza said. “That’s what’s going to get me down the court before them. That’s what’s going to allow me to play, that I have to go so much harder than them.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Cunningham, the Alpha of the young core, and likely of the franchise, at some point. Cunningham is just different — and when there might have been a mustard seed of doubt that he wasn’t the right pick at No. 1 after a duel with No. 2 pick Jalen Green, Cunningham rose to a different level.
Against the Knicks, Cunningham was the standout, scoring 24 points, including going 7-of-10 on 3-pointers. When the Pistons needed a basket to hold off the Knicks’ comebacks, he provided one each time.
“With Cade, a skill set that you may not see on the stat sheet is just his want-to. He wants to have the ball; he wants to be in position to make plays,” Pistons Summer League coach J.D. DuBois said. “When you’re in situations where you need him, he loves to step up to that challenge — and that’s why we have him at No. 1, because he’s a guy who will continue to improve in those areas, but you know he does want the ball in those tough situations.”
Cunningham doesn’t shy away from those opportunities; instead, he craves more of them to continue to prove that he belongs. It’s more fuel for the fire.
One big difference is that it’s not about doing it for his own glory; it’s how he can lift the team, an acknowledgment of what a No. 1 pick is supposed to do. That’s accountability. That’s relatable.
“I’ve been playing for a long time and whenever it gets to those times, I kind of feel it — and I just kind of want to be an outlet for my team a little bit. I want to be the guy that could be leaned on and trusted,” Cunningham said Friday. “So, I know that you have to be brave in those decisions and those times. You’ve got to have some (guts) and step up and go get the ball in those times. I want to be that guy that (convinced) my team that I was up for the challenge and make a play.”
That’s enough to get fans excited about what next season can bring. It might not bring a ton more wins, but it’ll bring a lot more interest in how this group develops.
Step by step, brick by brick, build the wall.
Somebody is going to run through it.
Pistons vs. Magic
► Tipoff: 8 p.m. Monday, Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
► TV/radio: ESPN2
► Outlook: The Magic (1-2) will be without top pick Jalen Suggs, who has a hand injury and only played the first three games. Cade Cunningham (calf soreness) and Killian Hayes (concussion protocol) are not likely to play for the Pistons (2-2).