Three players in Rising Stars tournament a good ‘sign’ for Detroit Pistons’ rebuild

Detroit Free Press

BOSTON — A flat performance by the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night wouldn’t have been a surprise. They had lost eight straight games, and 14 of 16. Of the 14, 10 were by double digits, and six were by at least 15 points.

The Pistons (13-45) are tied for last in wins this season, battered by injuries and stymied by a lack of experience. Four of their top six players by minutes — Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes — were drafted in 2020 or 2021. A fifth, 23-year-old Hamidou Diallo, was drafted in 2018. Almost every night, the Pistons have faced teams with superior experience and superior depth.

The Pistons carried themselves like a team eager to head into the All-Star break, seeking a reprieve from the dog days of the NBA season. So Detroit’s 112-111 road upset of the Celtics, who entered with nine straight wins and the six seed in the Eastern Conference, wasn’t just a mark in the win column. It was an affirmation.

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The Pistons don’t play again until Feb. 24, but the win gives their young players a reason to feel good going into the All-Star weekend. Detroit will have three players — Cunningham, Stewart and Bey — in Friday’s Rising Stars event. It’s the first time with three Pistons in the contest and only the second time since 2015 with even one Piston participating. All three played key roles in Wednesday’s win, and the honor is a positive sign for a team in the midst of a rebuild, according to head coach Dwane Casey.

“That’s a sign for our organization, to have three young men in the Rising Stars game,” Casey said. “I’d rather for them to be in the All-Star game, but the Rising Stars game is good for our organization. It’s a step for them in their careers as well for our organization, and our team going forward, to have that many young guys being recognized by the rest of the league. They deserve it, they put in the work, but we have a lot of work to do, a lot of growth to be had, and they’ll represent the organization and the city of Detroit well.

“We’d be in trouble if we had nobody in the game,” Casey continued. “So we’ve got three. We are one of the youngest teams in the league, and it’s just a sign we’re heading in the right direction.”

Bey scored 20 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out six assists and knocked down five 3-pointers against the Celtics, while Cunningham added 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Stewart was also productive, finishing with 12 points and six rebounds. Other than Jerami Grant’s winning turnaround jumper with 19.6 seconds left, the second-most memorable play of the night might’ve been Cunningham and Stewart’s joint block on Jaylen Brown with 12.1 seconds remaining to help preserve Detroit’s late lead.

Considering Detroit’s lack of draft success during the last decade, Friday’s Rising Stars tournament reflects the positive momentum the team has achieved under general manager Troy Weaver. It’s only the third time since the event’s inception in 1994 with at least two Pistons participating., after (The others? 2012, with Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, and 2013, with Knight and Andre Drummond.)

The event has a new format this year, though, with 12 rookies, 12 sophomores and four G League Ignite players split into four seven-player teams. Cunningham will team up with 2021 No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley on Team Barry, a squad coached by Hall of Famer Rick Barry. Bey and Stewart, meanwhile, are on Team Isiah, coached by Pistons legend and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. The two squads are in opposite ends of the brackets for the semifinals, which will be played to a target score of 50. The championship game will be played to a final score of 25.

It has been a tough season for the Pistons, who have 24 games remaining to pick up the nine wins needed to exceed their 20 wins last season. Casey often speaks about keeping his eye on the big picture — the goal is growth this season and in the offseason, while continuing to move in a positive direction. Three Rising Stars participants is a good indicator of that, easing fears that the Pistons have regressed.

It’s not the only good sign — the Pistons also made shot 53.3% from 3-point range Wednesday, their best single-game shooting percentage beyond the arc since Dec. 8 — but it’s a point to feel good about entering the All-Star break, and then, a short vacation.

“We needed it for our spirits, but this doesn’t make our season,” Casey said. “We still have a lot of growth to do, and I’m not blind to that. I understand what we still have to do these last 26 games and throughout the summer. It confirms the way we’re teaching, the style of play we’re teaching. The drive, kick, swing. We shot 50-something percent from 3, and this is a 3-point game. If we weren’t making 3s, we would’ve been in trouble because they were knocking them down, too. I thought we were playing well defensively. The best defense is not going to stop great offensive players, so you have to keep moving the scoreboard. And we did that tonight.”

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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