Detroit — They’re no longer a novelty. Now they’re part of the nucleus.
And if this latest incarnation of the Pistons is going to become what they all hope — from an ownership group entering its second decade in Detroit to a front office that overhauled the roster in less than a year and a head coach who has seen this all before, really — then the growth of last year’s impressive rookie class is paramount.
Cade Cunningham is poised to become the new face of this franchise. Jerami Grant sounds determined to prove himself as the team’s All-Star-caliber leader. But how quickly the Pistons can rise from a lottery lock to a playoff contender will depend in large part on how much growth we see on the floor from the “Core Four,” which is the label general manager Troy Weaver gave to his inaugural draft class last season.
Wednesday night’s opener against the Chicago Bulls tips off with varying expectations for all of them, of course. It will begin without Cunningham, as the rookie No. 1 overall pick works his way back from an ankle injury suffered in training camp.
But that’s all the more reason to focus on the second acts we’ll see when the curtain goes up Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena. And if you ask the director, head coach Dwane Casey, he’ll tell you those players — and specifically the three projected starters in Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart — are ready to step into the spotlight.
“They’re prepared for not being the new guys on the block,” he says.
Just how prepared, we’ll find out in a hurry, though, because the Pistons will play three of their first four games on the road and six of their first nine games overall against Eastern Conference favorites Milwaukee, Brooklyn (twice), Philadelphia (twice) and Atlanta.
Hayes missed all but one preseason game due to a concussion and ankle injury, while Bey missed the last two after spraining his ankle in the Oct. 11 loss at Memphis. Both returned to practice this week, however, and are cleared to start against the Bulls, a division rival Detroit hasn’t beaten since March 2019.
“(Wednesday) will be a great night come out and jump on the board,” Casey said. “I expect us to compete, play hard and nothing less. …
“We want to establish who we are this season. It may not be winning or losing, but establish who we are early in this process.”
Who they are now isn’t who they’ll be a year or two from now, obviously. That’s a given, based on Weaver’s first year on the job, and the way the cap sheet looks going forward. Chances are, there’ll be another lottery pick added to the mix next summer as well.
But these next few months should give us all an idea of what the possibilities might be, whether it’s Hayes’ development as a viable NBA starter in the backcourt or Bey’s prospects as something more than a 3-and-D wing or Stewart’s future as a game-changing big man. Guard Saben Lee rounds out the second-year quartet.
‘Everybody knows … who I am’
The potential is there, particularly with Bey and Stewart, who earned NBA All-Rookie honors last season and then were added to the USA Select team that helped prep the U.S. Olympic roster for this summer’s Tokyo Games. But so are the expectations, because as Stewart noted, “everybody knows (from) last year who I am.”
He’s a fearless, frenetic force on the interior that might lack the size and to be an elite rim protector but makes up for it with his motor, among other things. And he knows he’ll need all those things and more — including the perimeter shooting he flashed late last season — after making a quick first impression on the rest of the league.
Stewart ended up starting 14 games by the end of his rookie season, and in the eight games he played 30-plus minutes, he averaged 15.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. He also made a list of enemies the way Hall of Famer Ben Wallace — now a member of the Pistons’ development staff — used to a generation ago.
“I’ll definitely keep hammerin’ it,” said Stewart, who also ranked ninth in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage last season. “Last year, I was a surprise to a lot of guys I played against. But this year, I could already feel it in the preseason games: Offensive rebounds are not gonna come as easy as they did last year. I know I’m gonna have two guys sandwiching me, little tricks with them holding me down there, making sure I can’t get the offensive rebounds.
“So for me, it’s just gonna be working on different things to make sure I’m still able to grab those boards and just work around that. I know this year I’ll definitely be on the scout paper when we play against teams.”
So will Bey, though that was probably already the case late last season, as the 6-7 forward averaged 12.2 points and 4.5 rebounds while setting a franchise rookie record with 175 made 3-pointers. Bey shot 38% from three, but he spent the summer working hard on the rest of his offensive game knowing teams will focus on running him off the line.
“I’m comfortable doing either/or,” he insisted Tuesday, “but I just need to be aggressive in any spot that’s open for me.”
Likewise, Hayes knows he needs to be more aggressive in attacking the basket and finishing. But we’ll see if his body will cooperate — he missed three months with a hip injury last winter — and whether he can cut down on an ugly turnover rate or find some consistency with his outside shot.
“Really, I feel like, for me, I used to overthink things,” he said Tuesday, when asked about getting a fresh start in Year 2. “Now I come in with a clear mind.”
That, too, is imperative, because as Casey keeps reminding his young team, things only get harder from here. And while he’s convinced this team has the right attitude — a committed workforce rather than a compliant one, with players like Bey and Stewart “that have really challenged themselves to be great” — the veteran head coach knows more growing pains await.
“I’ve said that from Day 1, we’ve gotta be patient,” Casey said. “We’re still a very young team. But one thing we can control is how hard we come out and compete.”