The Detroit Pistons’ first preseason game is Wednesday. Four story lines to follow

Detroit Free Press

On Wednesday, the Detroit Pistons open their preseason slate at home against the San Antonio Spurs. Their four-game exhibition schedule is set to conclude against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 15.

Here are four story lines from training camp to follow over the next 10 days.

When will Cade Cunningham return?

It appears the odds of Cade Cunningham making his Pistons debut Wednesday are low. Cunningham suffered an ankle sprain early in training camp, and he hasn’t been able to participate in five-on-five action. Coach Dwane Casey is doubtful that his ankle will heal in time for the preseason opener.

“He still has some fluid on his ankle, and we’re going to be cautious,” Casey said. “It’s disappointing just because of the fact that this time is really to integrate him and get him going, and he’s missed a lot of time. No matter how many miles you ride on that bike or you’re on the sideline or in the pool, it doesn’t duplicate being on the court, getting the reps and I feel for the young man because he wants to be out there, but his body is not letting him.”

Cunningham has still been able to participate in shooting drills after practices, but the coaching staff wants to get him caught up on the NBA’s speed and physicality before he plays his first game. His next opportunity to return is Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Eventually, Cunningham presumably will be one of Detroit’s starters. Casey said the first unit will be younger than the second unit, which opens the door for Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes to also start alongside Jerami Grant. It seems like a certainty that Bey will start, as he did most of last season. Hayes also began and finished last season in the starting five.

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How will Killian Hayes’ aggression translate?

No Piston has received more praise over the past 10 days than Killian Hayes. The second-year point guard has much to prove after a difficult rookie season, and he has impressed coaches and teammates with his performances in camp.

One word used to describe him: Aggression. Hayes is playing with more speed and purpose, and it appears to be paying off so far.

“He’s been super aggressive, and I love it,” Rodney McGruder said. “I love it. You should’ve seen him playing me today. … I was screaming at him for a couple plays because of how impressed I was. But he’s been big time. He’s been really leading us in that point guard role, and you see he’s comfortable, you see he’s confident. He’s been big-time, man. He has been.”

Casey was equally praising.

“That’s the biggest change in his game that he came back with this year, is just his speed and his intensity and the aggression that he’s playing with on both ends of the floor,” he said. “That’s maturity. That’s getting used to the NBA speed, as I always say. The speed of the game, the aggression of the game, and he’s done an excellent job of that.”

The preseason will be Hayes’ first opportunity to show that he can apply those lessons in live NBA action. He had an up-and-down Las Vegas Summer League in August, but he has been a lot better since he returned to Detroit in September. He spent some time in France working out with his trainers immediately after Las Vegas, and he said it helped him prepare for the season.

“You’re not going to see a lot of the stuff Killian is doing now in the scorebook,” Casey said. “Pushing the pace, defensively he’s one of our best pick-and-roll defenders with his big body. What I like now is the speed he’s playing at. He’s playing at an NBA, high-level speed, where last year — and no disrespect to Europe — he was playing at more of a European speed. So now he’s gotten used to the NBA speed.”

Who will benefit the most from Detroit’s thin backcourt?

Cunningham and Frank Jackson are dealing with ankle injuries. It opens more playing time for not only Hayes, but Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson and Saben Lee as well.

Because Casey intends to cap his rotation at 10 players, only one of the those could see consistent playing time this season; the preseason will give one of them an opportunity to stake their claim on that spot.

Lee hasn’t been talked about as much during camp, but he had a strong run in Las Vegas. Shooting was one of his weaknesses last season, but he shot the ball well in Las Vegas, and he shot it frequently. His improvement from behind the arc is legitimate, Casey said, and he’ll have a chance to showcase that.

“He’s going to have a bigger role,” Casey said. “He had an excellent summer, excellent camp. His shooting has been there, he’s been knocking his shots down. He’s worked hard on his 3-point shooting. His gift to the team is his defensive activity, his speed and quickness of getting into the paint and setting other people up, setting the table as much as anything else. Right now, his 3-point shooting would be gravy if teams want to go under on him. But I think that’s gotta be his first focus, is playing the point guard position like a quarterback. Setting the table, talking, communicating, making sure everyone is in the right position. And I think that’s one step he has to make in his growth.”

Diallo and Josh Jackson have also been “excellent” during camp, Casey said.

How will Casey handle the center rotation?

Stewart and Kelly Olynyk are Detroit’s main options to start at the five, and they bring different skills to the position. Olynyk is a strong shooter and skilled passer; he’ll likely be one of the Pistons’ best offensive players no mantter when he enters the game. But he would bring experience and consistent floor-spacing to the first unit, which could help Hayes and Cunningham.

After one season, Stewart has already proven to be the best rebounder and post defender on the roster. He also didn’t look out of place switching onto smaller defenders at times last season. His 3-point shot isn’t perfect, but he has worked on it and he has the green light to shoot.

My guess is that Stewart will start, due to his defense, rebounding and potential floor spacing. But Casey also noted that both players can play together, which would open additional playing time for Olynyk.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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