How Detroit Pistons’ Saddiq Bey uses the free-throw line to power sophomore surge

Detroit Free Press

When healthy, Jerami Grant provides a variety of important skills for the Detroit Pistons. But his best skill on offense could be his ability to get to the line.

Grant is among the NBA’s best when it comes to drawing fouls. He’s averaging 6.1 free throw attempts per game this season, tied for 11th overall with Damian Lillard. It may not sound like a big deal, but it adds offensive value even when his shot isn’t falling and puts additional pressure on opponents.

The only guards and forwards averaging more free-throw attempts per game are Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Trae Young.

Grant is in elite company, but he is set to miss at least another three weeks after undergoing thumb surgery. In the meantime, Saddiq Bey has been doing a pretty good Grant impersonation.

After a slow start to his sophomore season, Bey has since emerged as Detroit’s best and most well-rounded scorer. In his last seven games, he’s averaging 24.3 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 45.1% overall, 37.7% from 3 and 93.8% at the line. In that stretch, he’s attempting 6.9 free throws per game — 13th in the NBA among players who have played at least four games.

He’s taking significantly more free throws than he has previously in his NBA career, and it’s paying dividends for the Pistons, who have  been severely depleted due to injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak.

[ Frank Jackson (right ankle sprain) out at least 7 to 10 days ]

“I try to get to the line as much as possible using what I have and the ability to try to get to the line to try to build a reputation of getting to the line,” Bey said after scoring a career-high 32 points in the 94-85 loss to the Knicks on Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena. “That’s what I want to do, for sure. Just try to be balanced.”

Bey averaged just 2.1 free throw attempts as a rookie, and 1.9 per game during his first 26 games this season. His last three weeks have been a significant, and sudden, improvement. He has the size (6 foot 7, 215 pounds) and strength to force contact near the rim, and he’s made an concerted effort to do so. It’s happened concurrently with him snapping his slump. During that same 26-game stretch, Bey averaged just 11.9 points while shooting 34.5% overall and 29.6% from 3.

In his last seven games, Bey has had two separate performances with at least 10 free-throw attempts. He knocked down nine of 10 during the Pistons’ win over the Miami Heat on Dec. 19, and 12 of 14 against the San Antonio Spurs this past Sunday.

LAST TIME OUT: Pistons lose another player, then falter late vs. Knicks, 94-85

“We talk about getting to the free-throw line all the time,” assistant coach Rex Kalamian said before the Pistons played the Knicks on Dec. 21.  “Especially when you’re not necessarily shooting the ball great. Getting to the free-throw line sometimes gets you going. …

“He’s being aggressive. That’s what that ultimately states, is that when you get to the free throw line seven, eight, nine, 10 times, it shows that you’re being aggressive and you’re attacking the game, you’re attacking the rim. That’s how we want to play offensively. That’s how we want to see him play offensively, is being in attack mode.”

With eight players in health and safety protocols and five additional players injured, Bey has seen his role expand significantly this month. He has played at least 36 minutes in his last seven games, and at least 43 minutes in his last three. After Frank Jackson left Wednesday’s game midway through the second quarter with an ankle sprain, Bey and Hamidou Diallo were Detroit’s remaining two proven rotation players.

Bey’s averages may decline once the Pistons become healthier and his minutes decrease, but the growth he’s shown this month should serve him, and Diallo, well in the future.

“That’s what the fine line is, is the fact that playing a role that they’re going to have once (players) come back,” Dwane Casey said. “Right now we need them to score, but then when Jerami comes back, Kelly (Olynyk) comes back, that usage rate may go down a little bit but they’re still in the same role that they are in right now, and it’s not going to be that drastic of a jump or a move.”

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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