Detroit — At the start of last season, Saddiq Bey was the new face, the newcomer who was trying to find his way as a young player in the NBA. He was surrounded by a veteran core that included Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Jerami Grant, helping to ease his transition as a rookie into the starting lineup.
The tables turned on Bey in the past week with the Pistons’ outbreak of COVID issues and players going into the NBA’s health and safety protocols. First, it was Grant being sidelined because of a thumb injury. Then it was Cade Cunningham, followed by Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart.
The outbreak took eight rotation players out of the lineup and led to a slew of new players on 10-day contracts through the NBA’s hardship provision. The new makeshift starting lineup featured Bey not only as the most-tenured Pistons player, but as the go-to scorer.
It also elevated Hamidou Diallo — who was out of the rotation in early November — to the starting lineup and in a major role. Rookie Luka Garza, who had spent some time with the Motor City Cruise, the Pistons’ G League affiliate, was starting in the middle.
That’s the new NBA in the time of the pandemic, with rosters changing daily and the updates of new players entering the health and safety protocols ever changing like quotes on the stock market ticker.
“These are tough times in our league. It’s not just us; you’ve got a lot organizations, in talking to different coaches around the league, going through the same thing. So, everybody’s all hands on deck,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Being a young team is a lot to overcome but our job is to grow through that, develop through that, and keep on going and playing within ourselves.”
Bey and Diallo have become the Pistons’ offensive leaders, more by necessity than anything else. Bey had a career-high 32 points and Diallo added season-highs of 31 points and 13 rebounds. The pair accounted for 74% of the Pistons’ 85 points in the loss to the Knicks on Wednesday. The 85 points were the fewest in NBA history by a team with two 30-plus-point scorers.
More than almost any team in the NBA, the Pistons have been impacted by way the pandemic has impacted their roster, seemingly all at once. They have seven players on 10-day contracts, and after Frank Jackson suffered an ankle injury on Wednesday, they have just three players — Bey, Diallo and Garza — from their regular roster.
Time to grow
That attrition has meant a big jump in minutes for Diallo, who has gone from about 16 per game as a reserve before Grant’s injury to 31 minutes in his last eight games, all as a starter. In those games, he’s averaged 15.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and he’s shot 39% on 3-pointers.
It’s all about the opportunity — and he’s taking advantage to showcase his full skill set.
“Playing in small minutes is hard for anyone. It’s hard to really showcase your talent, playing in small intervals, but you’ve got to just take what you receive,” Diallo said. “I’m a kid who was doubted my whole life. I wasn’t supposed to be here, so I just take what I can get, and whatever it is on me on any given night, I just go out there and just trying to make the best of it.
“With more minutes, you get more involved in the game, you get more rhythm and you get to break a sweat and you make an impact. Small spurts are very hard.”
Diallo’s strength is driving to the paint and making the defense decide how to guard him. With his athleticism, Diallo can beat his man off the dribble, but he improved in Wednesday’s game with his ability to find the open man and create opportunities for other.
That’s where his growth area will be, even when the rest of the roster gets healthy and he presumable goes back to a reserve role.
“He did one of his best jobs of reading the low man when he drives in there for kick-outs. Those are things that I think he has really grown into, because once he collapses the defense like that, the world is open,” Casey said. “His strength going forward is what he did (Wednesday). Get in there finishing, getting off the ball, getting it to the point guard and running the floor.
“Maybe two out of five times, he brings it up — but not every time. There was a huge transformation between the San Antonio game (on Sunday) and (Wednesday). I thought (Wednesday) was one of his best all-around games since he’s been here.”
Bey has noted the jump that Diallo has made, on both ends of the court. Diallo has been a menace defensively, but now that he’s increased his offensive production, he’s become more of an asset.
It’s not manifesting in wins at this point, but it bodes well for Diallo’s long-term future, as he’s on an expiring contract with a team option for next season.
“He’s very aggressive, and we need that. He’s a two-way player who can rebound and guard most positions, so it’s just been good to see him continue to be aggressive,” Bey said. “We all know he could do that. He’s been doing it for years here in the league. It’s been good to see.”
Bey is coming off a stellar season that included a selection to the All-Rookie first team, and he’s been called to do more on both ends of the court. It’s a stark increase since the rash of injuries and players entering COVID protocols.
“He’s making shots at a high rate. Running plays for him coming off out-of-bounds plays and knocking it down, getting his confidence, getting his rhythm,” Casey said. “Seeing that ball go through the hole has been really, really good for him. His usage rate has gone up, unfortunately, because of injuries, but he’s done a good job of handling it.”
For both Bey and Diallo, the promotion in responsibilities and production has been good for their development, and it’s possible that the Pistons will start getting players back from the protocols in the next week or so.
Until then, though, it’s going to be more growth and more opportunities for their two go-to offensive options.
“Right now, we need them to score, but then when Jerami comes back and Kelly 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,” Casey said. “When those (other) guys come back, Hami may not be the go-to guy, so to speak, with the same opportunities he’s getting now, he’ll get when those guys come back: the cutting, the attacking the rim, the defending.
“All those pieces will still be part of the game, but the most important thing is the confidence they’re building right now, when those guys come back will be invaluable.”
Spurs at Pistons
►Tipoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena
►Outlook: The Pistons (5-28) are struggling, with only three regular roster players available and another eight in health and safety protocols. The Spurs (14-19) romped over the Pistons in a 35-point blowout in San Antonio on Sunday.