Before the start of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, one of the Pistons’ ambitious goals was to win the championship. Given the structure, they would have needed to go undefeated and have four convincing wins in the preliminary games.
The Pistons didn’t achieve that goal, but they made some positive strides in gauging their young players and getting some good indications of where some of their other players fit on the roster. Of course, No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham was the center of attention, and he lived up to all the hype and showed why he was so highly regarded.
Beyond that, the Pistons also got a degree of confirmation that last year’s draft picks, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee, each can play a prominent role as the rebuild moves into its second stage. Luka Garza, a second-round pick this season, looks to be another gem unearned by general manager Troy Weaver.
The Pistons went 3-2 in Summer League, though Cunningham and Hayes played in only the first three games because of injuries. Bey played in the first four, and they got a good glimpse of what their future could look like.
Even with their additions, the Pistons, who finished 20-52 last season, will have some work to do if they have similar grand expectations of climbing from the depths of the Eastern Conference and making the playoff this season.
Summer League didn’t end in a championship, but it could be the start of something for the rebuild.
Here are some takeaways from the Pistons’ five games in Summer League:
He’s No. 1
Cade Cunningham is the real deal. Although he didn’t have eye-popping numbers with only 12 points in the opener, Cunningham showed that he can be a high-level scorer, with 20 and 24 points in the next two games. One of the more impressive parts of his game was that he didn’t press too much to try to find his shots; he worked within the flow of the offense and found the shots that came to him.
The coaching staff seemed to have specific things they wanted to see from Cunningham and the young core and didn’t completely unleash him to show his full complement of skills. Against the Knicks, he got into a zone and went 7-of-10 from 3-point range — and it seemed almost effortless. Cunningham could have had several more assists, but shots that he set up didn’t fall. His passing and driving abilities aren’t a concern.
Defensively, he was aggressive and with Hayes, they showed that they could be a formidable backcourt duo for the future. They created turnovers and their length on the perimeter made it hard for teams to even get their offense going. That will be an exciting part of their game to watch moving forward.
Most impressively, he handled the pressure of being the top pick with class and maturity. In the highly anticipated matchup against No. 2 pick Jalen Green, Cunningham didn’t fall into the hype and played well within himself. Defensively, he got the better of Green, whose 25 points came mostly when Cunningham wasn’t guarding him.
Some observers had questions about whether Hayes and Cunningham would be a good fit together as a backcourt, and they answered many of those questions with their play. Hayes was the primary ballhandler, as the Pistons looked to get him more comfortable there. He showed good playmaking ability with four assists in the first five minutes of the opener.
Hayes showed that he can get in the paint and score off his floater, but he sometimes gets caught in between committing to passing too early or being pushing into a tough shot. Although Hayes did have some trouble finding his jump shot early in Summer League, he knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the third game. His biggest issue seems to be balancing his body on the shot and not fading or drifting with his footwork, and he’ll work with John Beilein and the development coaches to improve on that. When he was in catch-and-shoot situations, he looked more comfortable and the shots seemed to fall more.
Hayes was at his best on the defensive end, playing outstanding on-ball defense on the perimeter and hounding opposing point guards. That alone should allow him to get significant playing time while he continues to work on his shot.
Second-round pick Luka Garza ended up being one of the unsung heroes of the Pistons’ Summer League team. Garza, a 6-foot-11 center, was the 52nd overall pick, and he worked like he had something to prove in each of the five games, including notching a double-double in each of the last three. He’s not uber-athletic, but Garza makes up for his shortcomings with hustle and skill.
More: Luka Garza transforms game, body to develop into prospect for Pistons
The biggest knock on Garza’s game was his mobility on the defensive end, but he compensates for that with deft touch from the outside (40% on 3-pointers) and posting 15 points and 9.6 rebounds. He’ll be on a two-way contract — at least for now — and start the season with the Motor City Cruise in the G League.
Garza has good skills in the paint and there looks to be a place for him eventually on the main roster as he continues to develop. If the Pistons’ perimeter defense can compensate for some of his issues inside.
Forward Jamorko Pickett made a name for himself with some high-level 3-point shooting. The four-year player from Georgetown doesn’t have a roster spot, but the talk is that he could play for the Cruise and be in the Pistons’ system. He’s an intriguing fit as a prospect, but the Pistons will have to hang on to him.
Lee showed he can run the offense when given ample opportunity. Lee struggled early, but when Cunningham and Hayes were out, he improved significantly, especially with his 3-point shooting and aggressiveness with the ball. He’ll have to fight for playing time as well, but the future looks bright for him, especially with a new three-year contract.