Detroit — After a dismal season that yielded the No. 1 pick in the draft and following some glimmers of optimism in the NBA Summer League, the improved Pistons roster is ready to hit the court for the first time.
Granted that it’s still preseason, there is some anticipation for what the new-look Pistons will bring, especially with the addition of Cade Cunningham and a summer of improvement for some of last season’s standouts, including Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes.
The preseason opener Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs will provide a glimpse at how far along the Pistons have come. Although there isn’t widespread expectation that they’ll make the playoffs this year after a 20-52 record last season, there is some optimism that they’ll build on the young core that provided some excitement and is the foundation of general manager Troy Weaver’s roster restoration.
Here’s a look at five things to watch in Wednesday’s preseason game:
► 1. Return of Cade? Cunningham has been hampered by a sprained ankle for the majority of training camp. Coach Dwane Casey said the medical staff is being cautious, and Cunningham has been limited in what he can do in practices this week. Casey added Monday there’s no timetable for Cunningham’s return to practice, but he didn’t think the injury was serious enough to keep the rookie out for an extended period. Any time Cunningham misses is crucial because he needs to adapt to the speed of the NBA game and to develop chemistry with his new teammates. It won’t be catastrophic if Cunningham can’t play in the opener, because just getting him back healthy is the clear priority. Given that Cunningham has been doing light shooting drills at the end of practice sessions this week, the ankle injury doesn’t seem to be a grave concern.
► 2. Center of attention: When the Pistons signed Kelly Olynyk in free agency, the talk began almost immediately about what that meant for Isaiah Stewart, who was a second-team all-rookie selection last season. Would Stewart be relegated to the bench after a promising first season? The signs point to the idea Stewart will be the starter and Olynyk will come off the bench, but there could be plenty of mixing and matching in the lineups, with both big men playing together, at times. The upside is Olynyk brings improved 3-point shooting, but his playmaking will be a huge benefit to the Pistons as well. Stewart had a setback with an ankle injury this summer, but he’s back at full strength and he’s ready to build on his successful rookie season.
► 3. Who’s on first? Casey hasn’t divulged who the starting lineup will be, but he has dropped some clues. He mentioned this week that the first unit likely will be younger and the second group more experienced. Cunningham, Bey and Grant likely would be in the startling lineup, but the last two spots are open for discussion. Everyone has been high on Hayes’ improvement in the offseason, and his increased aggressiveness on both ends of the court. It would be something of a surprise if Hayes didn’t start, as he did at the beginning of last season. The only other question is Olynyk or Stewart, and if Casey’s statement holds true, that should be Stewart.
Figuring out the second group could be as interesting, but it could end up being Cory Joseph, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Trey Lyles and Olynyk. The rest of the reserves will get some time, especially in the four preseason games, to help shake out some of the depth chart moving forward. Casey also said that he wants to keep his playing rotation at 10, so that might mean some competition for Josh Jackson and Saben Lee to carve out consistent playing time.
► 4. Three for the money: The Pistons weren’t an elite team from 3-point range last season, shooting 35%, which ranked 22nd in the league. With the addition of Olynyk and the improvement that Stewart has made, they can have an intriguing lineup on the floor at almost all times that has a perimeter-shooting big man — and that extends to rookie second-round pick Luka Garza.
Cunningham’s addition will provide some needed playmaking and the ability to create open shots within the framework of their offense. Look for that 3-point percentage to increase, with many players having the green light if they get open looks.
► 5. The new Killian: Casey and several players have pointed out that Hayes has been much more aggressive in training camp, and that could bode well for his production this season. Will that translate to more drives to the basket and finding teammates with pinpoint passes? Does it mean he’s being more selective with which 3-point shots he takes — and makes? If Hayes can get comfortable early in the preseason, it could mean big things for the Pistons on both ends of the court. Hayes showed in Summer League how effective he can be as a big defender; if he carries that confidence on both ends of the court, he could be a catalyst for some exciting backcourt play.
Spurs at Pistons
► Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD
► Outlook: The Pistons open their four-game preseason schedule at home, and all eyes will be on No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, who has been dealing with an ankle injury for most of training camp.