Pistons mailbag: Cade Cunningham-Killian Hayes better together or apart? Sekou’s future?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons are entering the quietest stretch of the calendar.

Five weeks will pass before training camp begins Sept. 28. While at least one blockbuster NBA trade could take place in that span, the Pistons’ offseason business appears mostly done. They retained the free agents they wanted, signed three of their four draft picks and spent all of their available cap space. Now, we wait.

Unless something crazy happens, this will be the final mailbag before things the schedule ramps up. Let’s get to it.

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I don’t think there’s an inherent advantage either way. What’s best for Cunningham’s development may not always be what’s best for Hayes, and vice-versa. They will spend time playing together and apart. It isn’t an either-or scenario. The Pistons will have to evaluate how well they mesh, and then weigh that against the needs for the rest of the roster. As coach Dwane Casey said recently, they’re “1A” and “1B.”

Playing them together can be mutually beneficial. Cunningham makes the game easier for everyone, and should do that for Hayes. Cunningham, 6 feet 7, reads the floor like a point guard and could be one of the best shooters on the team. His shooting makes him an ideal running mate next to Hayes, who can zip accurate passes to shooters. When Hayes is off the ball, Cunningham should help generate more catch-and-shoot looks for him. Hayes has shown he can be a good shooter when his feet are set. He doesn’t get as many catch-and-shoot looks when he’s running the offense.

Defensively, the pairing has upside, as we saw during summer league.

Hayes doesn’t have to play next to Cunningham to maximize his development, however. And the same is true for the rookie; he won’t be equipped to help Hayes with everything.

Likewise, Hayes only has 26 NBA games played, and is still closer to being a rookie on his developmental timeline than a sophomore. Cory Joseph is a veteran who mentored him last season, and should be able to provide similar mentorship toward Cunningham. Joseph is a good passer and shooter who can make life easier on the court for both players.

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Cunningham also doesn’t need to be paired with another ball-handler to be effective, though the Pistons will likely play him next to one often. Because he’s a natural point guard, he could thrive next to players who don’t need the ball, such as Hamidou Diallo or Frank Jackson. We still have to see how much of this shakes out, but Cunningham and Hayes being paired together is one of many factors that will play into their development.

Realistically, the Pistons are on a nine-year timeline with Cunningham. He’ll be eligible to sign a five-year “Designated “Player” rookie scale extension after his third year in the NBA, which will be in 2024. The extension will kick in after his initial rookie contract ends in 2025. If he comes remotely close to living up to the hype of being the No. 1 pick, he’ll sign the five-year max contract. Since 2008, Anthony Bennett and Markelle Fultz are the only eligible top picks who haven’t signed five-year extensions. Bennett was a bust, and Fultz suffered an injury and wasn’t the same player. Something would have to go catastrophically wrong for the Pistons to not sign Cunningham through 2030.

Of course, it could always go wrong after he signs the extension. But why not take Cunningham at his word? He appears genuinely happy to be in Detroit, and has said all the right things to assuage any fears he isn’t committed to the Pistons. Few No. 1 picks are drafted into winning situations, and general manager Troy Weaver wants to win.

The Pistons don’t have many avenues available to speed up the rebuild, anyway. They already have a young core in place, and a young veteran with All-Star potential in Jerami Grant. They will be among the NBA’s leaders in cap space next season, but the 2022 free agency class doesn’t have many marquee names. They could theoretically use that cap space early by swinging a midseason trade for a star, if the opportunity presents itself. But I don’t expect they will do something shortsighted due to potential decisions Cunningham might make years down the road. It’s premature to worry about that.

There’s still another year before Sekou Doumbouya is eligible for his rookie-scale extension in 2022. Realistically, that gives the Pistons another year before they have to make any major decisions about his future. But he has been outside of the rotation since Detroit drafted him 15th in 2019, save for a handful of weeks where he looked like a potential starter. If he doesn’t significantly improve, it’s tough to see his place in the rotation changing much.

Doumbouya is the only remaining player on the roster who was here before Weaver took over last summer. He was eighth on the roster in total minutes played last season, behind every other player in the young core except Saben Lee and Jackson, who were on two-way deals, Diallo, who arrived after the trade deadline, and Hayes, who was injured. Several established players are competing for time at forward, including Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, Grant, Josh Jackson, and the two new free agency additions, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles. Where does that leave Doumbouya?

I think he’ll spend significant time with the Motor City Cruise, assuming something doesn’t impact his status with the team before the season starts. The front office intends to use their incoming G League team as a player development tool, and Doumbouya will have significantly more minutes available with the Cruise than he will with the Pistons. He was expected to be a project when the Pistons selected him, but he’s entering his third season and playing under a GM who didn’t draft him. At some point, they will need to see more results.

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I think we’ll see Jamorko Pickett play for the Cruise next season. The 6-9 Georgetown alumnus was a surprise standout at summer league, shooting 54.5% overall and 50% from 3 in five games. He started the final three and reached double digits in scoring during all three.

Teams always need shooters, and it’s a bonus that he’s a big forward. He makes sense as a G League player for Detroit.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofaRead more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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