Great expectations: With Cade Cunningham, young core, Pistons look to make leap

Detroit News

Detroit — As training camp opens on Tuesday, the Pistons find themselves in an unusual spot. They’re coming off a 20-52 season and there’s growing optimism about what the future holds and the young core of their roster.

They added Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and they have a roster of 17 players — including nine who are rookies or second-year players. Still, there are expectations of making a big step forward, even after finishing with the second-worst record in the league last season.

That improvement and set of expectations was a recurring theme in Pistons media day on Monday, the prelude to the opening of training camp. Cunningham is the headliner, but close behind are last year’s rookies, including Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, who were All-Rookie selections, and Killian Hayes.

It’s almost a palpable good feeling that the Pistons won’t be as bad as last season, but they will be fun to watch and will make strides — enough where the fan base can be energized and the players and coaches can feel accomplished.

“We’re a year ahead in the process, as far as bringing the second-year guys back like Saddiq, like Isaiah. The continuity and consistency they bring back gives us another step forward, and I think that’s huge, bringing the same core group back,” coach Dwane Casey said. “We have some special young talent. I use the word young, and we’re going to have ups and downs and adversity.”

More: Detroit News 2020-21 Pistons final grades

Casey used the San Francisco Giants, who were projected to be one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball, as an example. They overachieved this season and have the best record in baseball — not that the Pistons would do the same, but that’s the underdog mentality they want to bring.

“I hope and pray we emulate that, but it can be done so I say, ‘Why not us?’” Casey said. “Everybody’s counting us out, and they’ve got us at the bottom, which is great, fine. I function better being an underdog and hopefully, our guys put a chip on their shoulder.”

Much of the optimism rides on adding Cunningham, who brings a combination of scoring, ball-handling and leadership that they Pistons didn’t have previously. From the day the Pistons won the draft lottery and got the No. 1 pick, there’s been high anticipation about how the team could look with the best player in the draft.

Cunningham’s play in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas provided an appetizer, but the beginning of training camp means the entrée is just a bit closer. It’s not that many people outside the organization think that they have a chance to make the playoffs, but building a winning team from the foundation isn’t quick work, even for general manager Troy Weaver.

In his short time in Detroit, Cunningham already has seen the shift from the fan base.

“I feel the love pretty much everywhere I’ve gone while I’m in the city. People tell me good luck or just checking in,” Cunningham said Monday. “Hearing that from the city as much as I feel it within myself, it’s a good feeling and I think it’s going to start the excitement for the season and how things go for us.

“We’re a young team and we’re trying to grow together but having the city behind us and being just as excited for our future as they are, we’re only going to see where we go from here.”

There’s a space between expectations and winning, and even the elite teams in the league are seeing that, but the Pistons are in a space where even progression toward winning is progress. For the foreseeable future, the face of that jump is Cunningham.

Doubters and naysayers are out there, but Casey is adamant that they have the right starting point for their push forward.

“One thing I know: Cade won’t be a bust — that’s one thing you can guarantee,” Casey said. “ But, there will be growing pains. We have to be supportive. He’s going to have a target on his back each and every night, and it’s on us, his teammates, the coaching staff, the whole organization to make sure we support him.

“There’s going to be some nights he scores 7 and there’s going to be some nights he scores 25. Is that who he is either way? No, it’s somewhere in between until he gets used to the NBA game.”

This season won’t be the only indicator of how far the Pistons have come in their rebuild, but it will provide some indication. Even getting to 25 or 30 wins will be progress, but they’re aiming for more than that.

In building for long-term success, they’re started with the foundation of their first- and second-year players, with some veterans like Jerami Grant and Cory Joseph, who are filling in the spaces where inexperience is oozing.

So far, optimism is replacing skepticism.

“We definitely wanted to come in and restore what’s been here,” Weaver said. “We want to put a team on the floor that resonates with the city and the state and the fan base — hard-working guys with great competitive spirit, and some young, talent that people can really kind of get behind.

“That’s the goal, absolutely, to create an identity and a team that the fan base can get behind.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsrodbeard

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