Niyo: Weaver’s rollercoaster ride pays off with foundational Ivey, Duren

Detroit News

Detroit — There were too many phone calls and text messages to count over the last couple weeks. And for Troy Weaver, there were far too few chances to close his eyes and rest.

But as he sat basking in the midafternoon sun Friday at Detroit’s Rouge Park, where the Pistons’ general manager was joined by head coach Dwane Casey and their latest NBA draft haul — a get-rich-quick pair of lottery picks in guard Jaden Ivey and center Jalen Duren — Weaver’s tired eyes were smiling behind a pair of sunglasses.

“You can’t see it because I’ve probably had six hours of sleep in the last 14 days,” he chuckled. “But I’m more excited than I’ve ever been.”

So are most Pistons fans today, I’m sure, in the immediate aftermath of what vice chairman Arn Tellem — a man who has been in this business for more than 40 years as an agent and executive — described Thursday as “the craziest night ever.”

It was a night that saw Weaver and his front-office staff — now dubbed the “Value Department” by Tellem — turn a rollercoaster NBA draft into their own private joy ride. And it’s one that, not coincidentally, was preceded by a phone call Weaver took from Pistons owner Tom Gores on Thursday afternoon.

“He said, ‘Hey, I want you to be aggressive, and go for it,’” Weaver recalled Friday. “I didn’t know what the rest of the day would look like then, but this is the result of what being aggressive and going for it is.”

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He then turned to his left, where Ivey and Duren were seated. And he didn’t need to explain any further. Two of the most exciting prospects in the 2022 draft class are now foundational pieces of this 2-year-old “restoration” project Weaver is engineering in Detroit, “and we’re grateful and thankful that we landed here,” the GM said. “These moments will be inflection points.”

There’s still a steep learning curve to navigate, and Casey talked at length Friday about the patience and persistence that’ll be required now, as the veteran 65-year-old coach is tasked with taming all the young talent Weaver has assembled here in short order.

There are some veterans still on the roster he’ll lean on, like Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk. And while the Pistons could make a major splash in free agency next month, Weaver instead may opt to use some of that cap space to add second-tier targets while possibly collecting more future assets. (More than once Friday, Casey mentioned a desire to add more outside shooting to the roster.)

Class in session

But starting next week, class will be back in session at the Pistons’ Performance Center, and Casey said no one was more enthused about the summer work ahead than Cade Cunningham, last year’s No. 1 overall pick who was on the phone Thursday night celebrating the picks with his coach.

“He’s the alpha dog,” Casey said.

And now he’s the unquestioned leader of a young pack that could be the envy of the league if all goes according to plan here.

There’s a solid core of talent that’s all age 23 or younger in Cunningham, Bey, Stewart, Killian Hayes, Marvin Bagley, Hamidou Diallo, Isaiah Livers and now Ivey and Duren, who won’t even turn 19 until November.

And much like with Weaver’s first two draft classes, this one seems eager to embrace the challenge ahead. The city, too, which is why Friday’s announcement was more than just a photo-op at Rouge Park, where Gores’ family foundation has committed $20 million to build a new 25,000-square-foot community center and renovate Brennan Pool and the locker-room facilities there over the next couple years.

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The Pistons moved back downtown five years ago, and they’ve invested heavily in the neighborhoods. But now they’re starting to build out a roster that finally looks capable of re-energizing the fans in Detroit.

“We want to get the city back to winning,” said Ivey, who was overcome by emotion again Friday when the Pistons presented his family with a set of jerseys honoring their Detroit ties.

His grandfather, James Hunter, played for the Lions in the late ‘70s, his father Javin Hunter starred at Detroit Country Day, and his mother, Nielle Ivey, played for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. So Thursday night’s draft was a “homecoming” for him, in many ways.

Strong attraction

Duren is no stranger here, either. Cunningham helped recruit him to Monteverde (Fla.) Academy at the end of his prep career, and they’ve stayed in touch. Duren also said he felt a strong attraction when he came to Detroit for his first pre-draft workout.

“For me, I fell in love with the organization, and from there, I actually told my agent this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

The feeling was mutual, clearly. Casey laughed Friday when I asked him at one point he knew Weaver had fallen in love with Duren as a prospect.

“I heard about him all year,” he said. “Probably back in November or December, he started talking about him. And then I started watching him, and started falling in love with him with Troy.”

There were other connections, of course. Casey recruited Penny Hardaway, Duren’s coach at Memphis last season, more than 30 years ago when he was a high school star. Former Pistons coach Larry Brown also was on the Memphis staff, along with Rasheed Wallace for a time. So Casey had all the intel he needed, really.

He also trusts his eyes, though. And it’s easy to see the world of potential in both these players.

Ivey’s lightning-quick first step and elite ability to get to the rim and finish make him an ideal tag-team partner in the backcourt for Cunningham, while Casey says Duren reminds him of another player he once recruited: Shawn Kemp, the rim-rattling “Reign Man” who was a six-time NBA All-Star in the 1990s.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Casey said, before explaining both players possessed the same raw talents and “had everything that you can’t teach.”

And along with Ivey, he adds, “These are two guys that have something we didn’t have.”

Now that they have it? Well, the sky’s the limit, perhaps. And for the Pistons, the sun is definitely shining.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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