What I like, don’t like about Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, shooting woes stand out

Detroit Free Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — The first 20 games for the Detroit Pistons haven’t been pretty. They have 16 losses against a deep NBA, and haven’t seen growth in all of the areas they wished entering the season.

It’s the tough reality of fully rebuilding a roster. Young players are unpredictable, and young teams rarely win games against more-experienced opponents. The Pistons have nine players with fewer than two full seasons of experience.

“We’re trying to grow some pups that probably should be playing for Gonzaga right now,” Dwane Casey joked on Sunday. “It takes time.”

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Despite the 4-16 record, there have been bright spots for the Pistons. But there’s certainly been a lot of room for improvement, as well. Here’s what’s stuck out roughly five weeks into the season:

Like: Cade Cunningham delivering some big moments early in his career

There wasn’t one particular thing that endeared Cunningham to the Pistons during their pre-draft process. It was the entirety of his game. Cunningham excelled as a shooter and defender as as freshman at Oklahoma State, was the best playmaker on the roster and was their go-to player in clutch moments. Off the court, the coaching staff was impressed by his leadership.

“His overall game played into that,” Dwane Casey said. “His shooting, his passing, the way he sees the floor, his basketball IQ, just his overall all-around play. His leadership ability, his ability to run a team, to connect with his teammates, all those things were variables as far as us selecting him. Those things have carried over now.” 

It’s been an up-and-down rookie season for Cunningham so far, but many of the most notable moments of the season belong to him. He became the youngest player in franchise history to record a triple-double during their loss to the Lakers on Nov. 21. He already has a highlight reel of clutch buckets, hitting tough shots against the Nets and Raptors.

There have been some early warts, too. He has yet to find his shooting touch, is knocking down 33.5% of his shot attempts and 24.5% of his 3-pointers. He has also been a little turnover-prone, though that’s to be expected for a rookie ball-handler. In just 15 games, he has shown enough to make the Pistons confident in his future.

“His shooting hasn’t come around yet, but it goes back to the first question, how do you measure that? He’s taking the right shots, which he is, the open shots,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Some of the tough shots he makes, he has made those his whole career. As long as he’s taking the right shots we’re going to live with the results, and eventually he’s going to make those shots. Guys don’t forget how to shoot.”

Dislike: The severe shooting struggles

The Pistons’ biggest offseason priority was improving their 3-point shooting. They spent most of their money in free agency on two big men — Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles — who are proven floor-spacers. They hired John Beilein, whose Michigan teams were always adept outside the arc, in a player development role. Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee and other players on the roster spent significant time over the summer ironing out their shooting forms.

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The hope was that Detroit would improve on its 35.1% 3-point clip last season, which ranked 22nd in the NBA. Instead, the Pistons have regressed. They’re shooting 29.7%, dead last in the league. It’s tough to pin down exactly why the Pistons are slumping. Hayes (36.8%) has been the lone bright spot. Every other proven shooter on the roster is below their recent career percentages.

The solution could simply be time. It’s tough to imagine that Saddiq Bey, who shot 38% as a rookie last year and was one of the most consistent shooters in college basketball during his two seasons at Villanova, will finish the season shooting a tick under 30%, as he’s doing now. Lyles, Cunningham, Frank Jackson and Cory Joseph are all shooting below 31%. It’s unsustainably bad. But a quarter of the way into the season, it’s fair to question if the Pistons will be able to make any significant improvements this season. Just getting back to last year’s mark would be an accomplishment.

Like: Trey Lyles settling in as versatile big man

Entering the season, the Pistons understood they would occasionally have to lean on Lyles, a power forward, as an emergency center. But Lyles has had to play in the middle more than anyone could’ve guessed, particularly during this past week. Olynyk is out for another month with a left knee sprain, and Stewart served a two-game suspension last week.

Despite playing out of position, Lyles has quietly been one of Detroit’s most-effective players. He’s scored in double-digits in three consecutive games — including 19 points off of the bench in Milwaukee last Wednesday — and played the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter at center during Sunday’s near-comeback against the Lakers. During that three-game stretch, he’s knocked down 17 of his 30 shot attempts (56.6%) and seven of his 15 3-pointers (46.6%).

The Pistons haven’t had consistent play at any position this season, but Lyles is giving them exactly what they need from him, and then some.

Dislike: Uneven starts for sophomores

A successful rookie season doesn’t guarantee a sophomore leap. To develop, players often have to exit their comfort zones first. When that happens, the results are often mixed. The Pistons have little reason to panic over any of their building blocks yet. It’s too early for that.

Bey and Stewart, named to the NBA’s first-team and second-team as rookies, have showcased many of the traits that turned them into core pieces for the Pistons last season. But they haven’t been spared from the offensive woes that have plagued the rest of the roster.

Bey’s shooting numbers are down across the board: 36.3% overall, 29.4% from 3. Some of it can be attributed to an altered shot profile. He’s taking more shots at the rim and from midrange, and fewer 3-pointers, his best weapon last year. But he’s also just in a slump, as his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage is down to 28.1% this year, from 40.2% last year. Shooters don’t forget how to shoot, as Casey always says. He should break his slump eventually.

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Stewart, the starting center, have been as advertised with his defense and rebounding. Per Cleaning The Glass, his defensive rebounding percentage (21.6%) is in the 74th percentile among bigs league-wide. He’s the best rim protector on the roster. But his offensive numbers are down. After shooting 64% at the rim as a rookie, he’s down to 59% this season. Both numbers are below-average. He’s also taking fewer 3-pointers, after the shot became a focal point of his game late last season. Stewart is a slightly undersized center (6 feet 9), and things have not come easy for him in the paint. A consistent outside shot could open things up for him and his teammates, but for now, the Pistons want him to focus on his strengths.

Similar to his rookie season, Hayes hasn’t been one to call his own number this season. He doesn’t take many shots at the rim, and doesn’t draw many fouls. But he has made a notable leap as a shooter, knocking down 36.8% of his 3-point attempts after hitting just 27.8% a year ago. He’s improved his decision-making. He’s averaging fewer assists (partially because of the team’s shooting), but has reduced his turnovers from 3.2 to 1.7 per game. Hayes has also been perhaps the best perimeter defender on the team. He’s still figuring things out, but his playmaking and defense have been bright spots.

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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