Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey proving to be core pieces for Detroit Pistons rebuild

Detroit Free Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Spoiler alert: The Detroit Pistons’ midseason grades are higher than their 11-34 record might imply.

The Pistons are in the midst of a rebuild and are also one of the NBA’s least-deep teams due to having $45 million in dead money on the books. Despite being one of the worst teams, much of the roster is playing at or above preseason expectations. It hasn’t translated to winning, but there have been positives.

The Pistons have played 45 games with 37 remaining, so we’re just past the midway point. Here’s their midseason report card:

Saddiq Bey: B

To explore Bey’s sophomore season in a proper context, we have to divide it into two parts — before Jerami Grant exited the rotation with a thumb injury, and after.

Bey, 22, got off to a rough start. During his first 25 games, he averaged 12.2 points, six rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 34.8% overall and 30.5% from 3. Compared to his rookie year, Bey has been afforded more offensive freedom from the coaching staff. It took time for him to find comfort with his expanded role. He second-guessed open 3-pointers and even struggled to hit the 3s he immediately let fly. He took more shots inside the arc, but didn’t convert many.

He has been a different player in the 20 games since Grant sprained his UCL in his right thumb, averaging 18.9 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 41.8% overall and 35.7% from 3. In Grant’s absence, Bey’s shot attempts per game have increased from 12.8 to 15. His efficiency is up from every section of the floor — at the rim, from midrange and from 3 — and his points per game have accordingly seen a boost.

While Bey has played more power forward since Grant’s injury, it doesn’t explain his dramatic shift in his efficiency. The two forwards didn’t struggle with each other last season. The simplest explanation is probably the most likely one: Bey snapped his slump. He’s beginning to look the part as an offensive focal point, and his surge during the past six weeks has been one of the team’s biggest bright spots.

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Cade Cunningham: B+ 

Like Bey, we have to divide Cunningham’s season into two parts. He missed all of training camp due to an ankle sprain, and it took him some time to acclimate to the NBA’s pace. His first four games have dragged down his season averages, since he shot 23.2% overall and 14.3% from 3 while averaging 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.3 turnovers, 0.5 steals and 0.3 blocks.

Cunningham, 20, has gotten better as the season has progressed. In 32 games since those initial four clunkers, he’s averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks while shooting 42% overall and 35% from 3.

Cunningham looks the part of a No. 1 pick, and has largely been the player he was advertised to be coming out of Oklahoma State. He needs to reduce his turnovers, but it’s a minor quibble as he has otherwise emerged as one of the Pistons’ best scorers, playmakers and perimeter defenders.

Isaiah Stewart: B

Stewart’s sophomore season hasn’t been much different from his rookie season. His shooting percentages are slightly down, but his rebounding and block numbers are similar. He is an integral part of the rotation, starting all 37 games he has played and proving his worth as the best post defender and rebounder on the roster.

The Pistons gave Stewart, 20, the freedom to play a more perimeter-oriented game toward the end of last season, taking 35 3-pointers during the final 10 games. He has reverted back to shooting mostly in the paint this season and has taken just 20 3s, making two. It’s not a shot he’s comfortable taking yet and I’m not dinging his grade for that. He knows his role and plays it well, and the Pistons have needed that from him.

Killian Hayes: C

Hayes might be the toughest player on the roster to grade. He has been Detroit’s best on-ball defender and one of its best passers. But he has been the worst offensive player, and his lack of scoring distracts from the other positives.

The 20-year-old has also battled injuries throughout the season. He missed four games in November with a thumb sprain, and that sprain has hurt  his shooting. He missed two games last week after exiting Monday’s game against the Warriors with a right hip contusion, and five games in December due to illness and health and safety protocols. Hayes gets credit for his passing and defense, but it’s tough to consistently impact winning while shooting 34.3% overall and 29.7% from 3.

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Jerami Grant:

Like most of his teammates, Grant got off to a slow start this season. His scoring numbers and efficiency are slightly down from last season. But he began to round into form before suffering a thumb injury on Dec. 10, as he averaged 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 45.5% overall, 40% from 3 and 90.7% at the line in his six games leading up to the injury.

After a breakout 2020-21 season, Grant was largely a similar player in the 24 games he has played. But that’s not a bad thing, as the 27-year-old was still the best player on the roster.

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Hamidou Diallo: B+

It has been a career-best season for Diallo, who’s averaging 14.1 points on 51% shooting, six rebounds and 1.7 steals in 28.5 minutes a game in 22 games (20 starts) since Dec. 8. He’s the best athlete on the roster, and he’s figuring out how to leverage his athleticism to pressure the rim and force turnovers. He’s shooting a career-high 68% at the rim this season, good for the 71st percentile among wings, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Diallo, 23, has been in the starting lineup since Dec. 12, and he’s entrenching himself as a player the Pistons can build around after signing a two-year deal last offseason.

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Trey Lyles: B

Injuries have forced Lyles, 26, into a bigger-than-expected role this season. He has spent most of his time playing out-of-position at center, since Kelly Olynyk’s knee injury left the Pistons thin at the five. But Lyles has found a groove as a sparkplug off the bench, and is averaging 13 points and 5.6 rebounds in 23.5 minutes since Dec. 10. The downside has been his outside shooting: 29.3% on 2.9 attempts per game for the season.

Cory Joseph: B+

After arriving at the trade deadline last year, Joseph immediately seized a large role and was one of Detroit’s most consistent performers. That’s been the case once again in 2021-22, as Joseph has been steady as an all-around backup point guard. He has been the team’s best outside shooter, knocking down a career-high 43.6% of his 3-pointers.

Frank Jackson: B

At first glance, Jackson’s shooting percentages are down from last season: 33.3% on 5.6 3s per game. But he has been better since Nov. 15, knocking down 37.1% of his 6.3 3-pointers per game. Jackson, 23, serves an important role as one of the few volume outside shooters, and the team has missed him. He last played Dec. 29 due to a sprained ankle and health and safety protocols.

Josh Jackson: C+

Jackson has seen his role reduced from last season, competing with Diallo for minutes. Diallo, who was promoted to the starting lineup in December, has been the more consistent player. Jackson is one of the more athletic players on the roster, and one of the better perimeter defenders. He has cut down on his turnovers compared to last season. As the Pistons have weathered injuries, Jackson has been a steady rotation member.

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Saben Lee: D

Lee was a pleasant surprise last season, providing a spark off of the bench as the backcourt struggled with injuries. While the 22-year-old has been a fantastic player with the Motor City Cruise this season, it hasn’t translated to the NBA. In 26 games, he’s shooting 38% overall and 27.3% from 3, both declines from last season. As a second-round pick, the Pistons can be patient with his development. He can produce the occasional highlight play, but has a way to go to become a reliable backup point guard.

Luka Garza: C

Late second-round picks typically don’t play as much as rookies as Garza has with the Pistons this season (27 games, 12.1 minutes per game). He has occasionally given them a lift offensively, but his defense needs work.

Kelly Olynyk:

Has played 12 games this season and recently returned after missing 33 games with a left knee sprain. Olynyk is one of the most capable offensive players on the roster, and showcased that during the come-from-behind win against the Kings on Wednesday. Olynyk scored a season-high 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and gave the center spot a stability it has lacked all season.

Rodney McGruder: B

McGruder nearly didn’t qualify for a grade, as the Pistons dealt him to Denver for Bol Bol, then later voided the trade. McGruder has played with vengeance since, scoring 19 points against the Warriors, 15 points against the Kings and 15 against the Jazz on a combined 18-for-30 shooting. McGruder has been a valuable veteran presence behind-the-scenes and plays with effort whenever he sees the floor.

Jamorko Pickett, Chris Smith, Isaiah Livers: Incomplete

Detroit’s two-way players and Livers, a 2021 second-round pick, haven’t played much this season. Pickett was a summer league standout who joined the Pistons midway through their road trip last week. Livers only played one game in December but has missed the past month with right foot soreness. Smith recently made his debut with the Cruise more than a year after tearing his ACL while at UCLA.

How Jamorko Pickett went from ‘caterpillar’ to ‘butterfly’ to the Pistons ]

Coach Dwane Casey: B

Casey hasn’t had a healthy roster since the 10th game of the season. The Pistons have dealt with more adversity than last season, due to injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak. But overall, Casey has still shown he’s the right coach for the rebuild.

The Pistons are 6-6 in January, with wins over Utah and Milwaukee, after starting 5-28 this season. Bey and Diallo are playing the best basketball of their career. Cunningham has settled in nicely. There are always nitpicks with a team with a losing record, but I don’t think there’s a coach who could get the Pistons to play much better than they currently are. There’s a lot to like about the job Casey has done thus far. 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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