Detroit Pistons bench continues to shine at preseason open practice

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons held their annual open practice on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena, and featured all of the usual hallmarks. The starters (sans Cade Cunningham, who is recovering from an ankle sprain) scrimmaged against the bench unit. Toward the end, Cory Joseph grabbed the mic to thank fans before goading his younger teammates into singing along to Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA.”

For many fans, it was their first look at the 2021-22 roster, less than two weeks before the season opens on Oct. 20. While we shouldn’t read too deeply into the open practice, which largely exists to entertain fans, there are some notable takeaways.

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Bench unit outperforms starters

For the first unit, coach Dwane Casey went with a lineup similar to last Wednesday’s starting five in the preseason opener. There was one one major difference — Killian Hayes, who is back from an ankle sprain, replaced Saben Lee.

Also similar to Wednesday, the bench unit looked much more cohesive than the first unit. Team Blue (the starters) featured Hayes, Rodney McGruder, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart, while Team White’s starting five had Cory Joseph, Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson, Trey Lyles and Kelly Olynyk. White blew out Blue, 80-51.

Things appeared to come a little easier for Team White. They had better spacing and played with more urgency. Given that the unit has more experience, it’s a trend that could continue.

“The disappointing thing is the Blue group got beat by 29,” Casey said. “I like everything the White group did, the second unit did. They played at a game speed level which I didn’t think the blue team did. I liked the crowd, I liked the open practice philosophy. The compete level of the group wasn’t where it should be. I think they took it as an open practice mentality and that’s what I talked to them about after practice, is they’re better than that to get beat by 29. To take nothing away from the white group, I thought they played the right way, defended the right way, they moved the ball, ball didn’t stick. I’m not going to judge the group on that. Hope it was an alarm clock and wake-up call.”

Frank Jackson impresses

Frank Jackson missed last Wednesday’s opener with an ankle sprain, but returned Friday and looked as sharp Saturday as he did at any point last season. He confidently knocked down multiple 3-pointers and was quick and aggressive when getting to the rim.

He scored eight consecutive points for the White team at one point during the first half, and switched to the Blue team during the second half. Jackson thrived as a spark plug off of the bench last season, and he looked like one of Detroit’s best players on the floor during the scrimmage.

“He’s coming off his injury, his ankle injury,” Casey said. “That rest probably has rejuvenated him a little bit. But he’s worked hard this summer and that’s what Frank does. He’s active. I think he learned from Wayne Ellington how to move without the ball. His activity on the offensive end is hard to keep up with. And he has that knack of finding open spots, getting open.”

Jackson shot close to 41% from 3 last season, and said that learning from Ellington last season, as well as from JJ Redick and Jrue Holiday during his previous seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, helped him improve as a shooter.

“Those are some of the best shooters to play in this game,” he said. “To be around Wayne all last year, to understand footwork and where to place the ball and even with JJ, even Jrue Holiday, people don’t really understand how locked in he’s been. Just being around guys like that. I can go down the list and name a whole bunch of guys who are elite shooters. So pick and choose. I don’t shoot exactly like everyone else but you can take bits and pieces of what works and then add them and incorporate them into your game.”

Luka Garza emerges as fan favorite

Garza appears to be one of the most popular players with fans. His name was chanted by the crowd toward the end of Wednesday’s game against the Spurs. He received a loud welcome during introductions on Saturday. And a few fans in the crowd chanted “MVP!” during his first two trips to the line.

Garza was a four-year player and star at Iowa, and he said his Big Ten connection is a reason why fans are so familiar with him.

“Obviously we’re still in Big Ten country, so a lot of people followed me through college and are familiar with me since I spent four years in the Big Ten,” he said. “A lot of battles between me and Michigan State and Michigan. It’s funny, a lot of fans here, they used to hate me for four years. Now they’re warming up to me. I love the support here in Detroit and I’m very excited to continue to work hard to live up to the hype they’re giving me.”

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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