Why Detroit Pistons’ Trey Lyles seems to fit right in as emergency small-ball center

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX — Coming into the season, the Detroit Pistons were aware of the possibility they’d have to use Trey Lyles at the center position.

Lyles, a career power forward, was aware of it too. He played the five in spurts at previous stops with the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs. It’s not his natural position, but his 6-foot-9 frame qualifies him to play it.

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But neither party could’ve predicted Lyles would play this much center, this early into the season. The Pistons knew they were thin up front, with Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk being the only players naturally suited to play the five. Luka Garza was also an option, but teams rarely lean on rookies picked in the second round to handle heavy work loads.

Olynyk suffered a knee sprain in mid-November, and won’t return until around Christmas at the earliest. Couple that with the recent two-game suspension Stewart served, and it’s turned Lyles into one of Detroit’s most versatile and key players. Signed primarily to stretch the floor, he has suddenly found himself battling against NBA giants every night. Most recently, that includes Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo.

Lyles has been a surprise in his new role as a small-ball five, establishing himself as one of Detroit’s more-reliable reserves in the last two weeks. He has scored in double figures in three of his last four games, including a season-high 19 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 24. That began a three-game stretch where he knocked down 17 of 30 total shot attempts (56.7%) and seven of 15 3-pointers (46.7%), while providing a rebounding boost off of the bench.

“It’s a little bit different not knowing the plays as well at the five, so still having to learn those, but offensively it’s a little easier for me because other teams usually don’t have fives that can space out on the floor and defend like that,” Lyles said. “It gives me an opportunity to get shots easier and get my teammates open and get the ball moving a little bit more on offense.”

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According to Cleaning The Glass, Lyles has spent 51% of his minutes at center this season — by far his career-high. And he’s been effective there, too. The Pistons marginally outscore teams by 0.8 points when he’s at the five, and are outscored by 9.9 points when he’s at power forward. Detroit has been one of the NBA’s worst-offensive teams, so Lyles’ offensive impact at center has certainly been felt.

The Pistons trailed the Bucks by 17 points shortly after Lyles checked in toward the end of the first quarter last Wednesday. He immediately gave them a jolt, scoring eight points in just under five minutes to help the Pistons narrow the deficit to six going into the second quarter. Lyles scored 13 points each against the Clippers and Lakers this past weekend in Los Angeles, and was a key part of separate fourth-quarter runs against both teams. Stewart didn’t appear in either fourth quarter, as Casey opted to stick with lineups that were gelling.

“I tell Trey, just shoot the ball,” Killian Hayes said on Sunday. “That’s what you do. Every time he catch it, let it fly. It started in Milwaukee, he hit a couple of big shots tonight. He’s doing his thing, he’s being aggressive, he’s taking 3’s, making them. That’s what Trey does.”

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“It took me a little bit longer than I wanted to find my rhythm with the team and find a rhythm on the court, but I think just being more aggressive, and Coach told me the team needs me to shoot the ball, don’t worry about missing,” Lyles said. “When you have confidence coming from coaches and teammates, it helps out a lot. Me, personally, just staying in the gym, staying working on myself and getting my touch right and stuff like that, and going out there, being aggressive and looking at the score has definitely helped a lot.”

Lyles is establishing his role off the court as well. He just turned 26 on Nov. 5, and on a roster featuring seven players 22 or younger, that makes Lyles a veteran. He’s still young enough to be considered a part of Detroit’s young core and keep up with current trends, but  old enough to not always be in the loop on some of the newer rappers his younger teammates play before and after games and practices.

“Man, I don’t even know what these guys’ names are nowadays,” Lyles said. “We were listening to somebody the other day in the locker room and I asked Cade who it was, and he said his name quick, and I said ‘man I have no idea who that is.’ I can’t even remember his name. It was a couple guys. I try to stay up to date with them, and they’re always playing them. Whenever they do I ask.”

Lyles smiled before continuing. “And most of it be garbage, so yeah.”

Lyles has been in the league long enough to know about the rigors of the NBA, and how to handle various situations. He has played for four teams over seven seasons and can relate to being a teenager in a league of experienced adults. It’s positioned him as a player his younger teammates go to for advice and feedback. And Lyles is embracing it.

“Guys are coming to me, asking questions, and I’m seeing things on the floor and talking to them during timeouts. I guess you can say I’m molding into that, I don’t want to say veteran, but older guy role on the team as far as talking and communicating what the team needs,” Lyles said.

“A lot of the stuff that guys are going through, I’ve been through or have seen teammates go through,” Lyles continued. “It’s up to me to step out of my comfort zone and talk them through hard times that they aren’t used to or just not going through, and just try to be a positive influence on them and get them positive feedback. It’s just about being positive with these guys and keeping them engaged, because it’s a long season. We have a long way to go. Just keeping them engaged and keeping them confident.”

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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