Seven burning questions for Detroit Pistons entering intriguing training camp

Detroit Free Press

The offseason is almost over, and one of the most consequential Detroit Pistons seasons in years will soon be underway.

They host 2021-22 media day Monday afternoon and training camp tips off Tuesday. Their first preseason game is Oct. 6, and the regular season will open two weeks later, on Oct. 20.

The roster is headlined by Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall in July. He arrives with the most potential for a young Pistons superstar since Grant Hill was selected third overall in 1994.

Cunningham will be flanked by a potential All-Star in Jerami Grant, three 2020 first-rounders and a host of promising young players and established vets. It might be too early to consider the Pistons a playoff team, but they carry plenty of intrigue. And fan interest is certainly high as the team prepares to meet for the first time next week.

Here are seven questions facing the Pistons entering training camp.

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What’s next for Grant?

General manager Troy Weaver’s biggest — and perhaps most unexpected — offseason signing last fall was also his best. Few predicted Grant, who had a strong playoff series as a role player with the Denver Nuggets in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, would leave the Western Conference contender for a bigger role with a non-contender. But Grant proved he was worth the gamble — and more than worth his three-year, $60 million contract — by averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game and receiving more than 400,000 All-Star votes.

Where will Grant take his game next? The Pistons believe the 27-year-old has yet to play his best basketball, even though he’s entering his eighth season. But there’s reason to believe Grant hasn’t yet reached his peak. He’s a late bloomer who was drafted 39th overall in 2014 by the Philadelphia 76ers. He didn’t shoot much at Syracuse, and struggled behind the arc and at the free-throw line during his first four NBA seasons.

His ability to space the floor is now one of his greatest strengths. Grant shot about 39% from 3-point range on a high volume of attempts in the two seasons (with the Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder) before he signed with the Pistons. That dipped to 35% with the Pistons, but that’s largely because they couldn’t consistently generate the high-quality looks he saw at his previous two stops. Grant took 52 pull-up 3’s per game and knocked them down at a 26.9% clip. That’s nearly twice as many as the 27 pull-up 3s he attempted during his first six seasons. It’s a byproduct of Grant having to create his own looks.

Grant is good on catch-and-shoot 3s, making 36.7% of his attempts last year. Cunningham’s arrival should reduce his need to take bad shots. Cunningham thrives when creating for others and draws the defense’s attention without the ball, since he’s a great off-ball shooter. Though Grant’s season was strong overall, his efficiency began to dip toward the end. He will benefit from playing alongside Cunningham, as will the rest of the roster.  

Grant draws fouls at a high level, a strength since his rookie season. His improved free-throw shooting has turned his foul-drawing into a weapon. He attempted a career-high 6.4 free throw attempts per game last year, tied for 11th in the NBA, and hit them at a career-high 84.5% clip. It gives him a high floor as a scorer, because he can reliably get to the line even when his shot isn’t falling. It remains to be seen if Grant will maintain the 17.3 shot attempts per game he averaged last year, but there’s a good chance his efficiency will increase.

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Was Cunningham’s Summer League a preview of what’s to come?

For the most part, Cunningham was the player he was advertised to be in Las Vegas. He averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals over three games and knocked down half of his 26 3-pointers. He hit his outside attempts both off the dribble and the catch. Even his leadership was visible, as he constantly rallied and reassured teammates on the floor and from the bench.

Cunningham also dished a few flashy assists; he would’ve averaged more if flanked with NBA players instead of youngsters. But his playmaking responsibilities were reduced compared to his lone season at Oklahoma State. In Vegas, the coaching staff often opted to stick Cunningham in the corner when he shared the floor with Killian Hayes. Cunningham is the better shooter of the two, so it makes sense. It doesn’t guarantee Hayes will handle most of the playmaking when they share the floor during the season, but it’ll be something to follow.

They’re “1A and 1B” in the pecking order, coach Dwane Casey said this summer. They will both be responsible for running the offense. They also won’t play 100% of their minutes together, meaning there will be times where they won’t have to account for each other. Since they have complimenting skills, it’s tough to envision a scenario where playing them together is worse than playing them apart. But Hayes will have to become a better shooter.

Cade Cunningham’s Pistons potential is limitless. He’s already proving it. ]

What can we expect from Hayes’ sophomore season?

It has been 10 months since the Pistons selected Killian Hayes at No. 7 overall, but he’s still far from a known commodity. He played 26 games as a rookie because of a torn labrum in his right hip. It can take multiple years before point guards are able to consistently play at an NBA level, so we can’t take much from Hayes’ performance so far.

His numbers were fine for a rookie: 6.8 points, 5.3 assists, 3.2 turnovers and 2.7 rebounds in just under 26 minutes per game. Hayes’ shooting splits will need to improve for him to be a full-time starter, though. He shot 35.3% overall and 27.8% from behind the arc. He focused on improving his shot mechanics this offseason, spending time in the gym with John Beilein. The coaching staff wants him to take more shots at the rim, rather than settle for floaters.

Hayes projects as a plus defender and playmaker, leaving his ability to score as his biggest question mark. He has the size to bully smaller defenders and draw fouls, and his catch-and-shoot form generally looks good. Even if he doesn’t develop the consistent footwork needed to hit stepback 3-pointers, he has the tools to step forward as a scorer.

SHAWN WINDSOR: It’s too soon to call Killian Hayes anything other than a work in progress

How will the center rotation shake out?

The Pistons have two big men talented enough to play 30-plus minutes a game this season. Isaiah Stewart is primed for a bigger role after an All-Rookie season and stint with the USA Select Team. Kelly Olynyk was Detroit’s biggest free agency splash and becomes one of the most talented offensive players on the roster. Unless the Pistons are willing to bring Saddiq Bey off of the bench, the safe bet is either Stewart or Olynyk will start at center, and the other will come off of the bench.

Stewart is the superior defender. He was better than projected on that end as a rookie, showing promise as a rim protector and comfort switching onto smaller players along the perimeter. No other Piston has his combination of defensive versatility and rebounding. Add in his developing outside shot, and there’s a strong argument he should start.

But Olynyk will receive his share of minutes. He’s an efficient shooter and post scorer and one of the NBA’s better-passing big men. Defense is his biggest weakness, but his ability to space the floor should make him a rotation mainstay. Even if he doesn’t start, he should excel off the bench, though he and Stewart can play alongside each other as well.

Luka Garza, who the Pistons promoted to a standard NBA contract on Friday, will likely be an insurance option.

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Is Bey ready to transition to primary offensive option?

From nearly Day 1, Bey was one of Detroit’s most consistent scorers last season. He knocked down 38% of his 460 3-point attempts, and that percentage held steady even as his attempts per game increased. If he’s simply an above-average spot-up shooter for his career, he’ll make a lot of money. He has already outplayed his No. 19 overall draft position.

Bey showed off some new tricks in Vegas, as he knocked down a handful of turnaround and fadeaway jumpers. Will we see him diversify his offensive game? It’s something he could look to add full-time.

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Did the Pistons address their outside shooting?

The Pistons didn’t shoot well from outside last season. They were 21st in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (32.9) and 22nd in makes (11.6) and percentage (35.1%). At the beginning of the offseason, Casey pinpointed outside shooting as a needed area of improvement.

Their best shooter in 2020-21, Wayne Ellington, signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Detroit signed a great shooter in Olynyk, and a respectable shooter in Trey Lyles. Grant, Cunningham, Bey, Cory Joseph and Frank Jackson are all average to above-average shooters. Garza and Isaiah Livers will not play significant minutes, but they were both great shooters in college. If Hayes and Stewart can hit from outside more consistently, and Hamidou Diallo can prove his 39% clip with the Pistons wasn’t a fluke, the Pistons’ woes from outside could be greatly diminished.

What is the ceiling for this roster?

The Pistons finished with the fifth-worst winning percentage (.278) in franchise history last season. And while they weren’t quite as bad as that suggests, it was still the NBA’s second-worst record. Cunningham’s arrival, coupled with internal improvement, should make the 2021-22 roster more talented than the 2020-21 version.

But the Eastern Conference has also improved, which will make Detroit’s path to the playoffs (or a berth in the play-in tournament) a tough one. All eight of last year’s playoff teams — in order of seed: Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers — will be in the mix once again. The Chicago Bulls should make a leap forward after acquiring DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. The Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards are talented enough to make the play-in games. Detroit may not be a playoff team quite yet, but should improve on last year’s 20-52 record.

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

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