Here’s what makes Cade Cunningham-Jaden Ivey-Jalen Duren Detroit Pistons so tantalizing

Detroit Free Press

There will be moments when the rookies are running, and the sophomores are leading, and the step-backs and lob dunks bring the crowd inside Little Caesars Arena to its feet.

There will be whole nights like this, too, when the Detroit Pistons’ young core knocks off a title contender — heck, it happened last season in Boston.

There will be as many moments when the rookies look perplexed, and the sophomores look frustrated, and the ball is skipping out of bounds or off the back of the rim or into the net too easily off the hands of the other team.

But, boy, when it’s flowing?

When Cade Cunningham calls Jalen Duren up for a high-ball screen and slips into the lane and kicks it weak side to Jaden Ivey with a clear runway to the rim?

Look out. Or watch out. Whatever you do, don’t look away.

I’m guessing you won’t. You can envision the possibilities already. It’s that tantalizing.

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And if it’s that tantalizing for you, then what must that feel like for Dwane Casey and the rest of the Pistons coaching staff?

“A big-time dream,” Casey said Friday, standing on a blue-top basketball court at Rouge Park under a bluer sky. “But getting to that is still a lot of work.”

The re-imagining of this team began long before Thursday night’s draft or even Wednesday’s decision to trade Jerami Grant, but if we’re thinking about how this team will look this fall on the court, that move is a good place to start.

Trading Grant to Portland for a future first-round pick opened salary cap space and set the table for the draft-night trade with the New York Knicks and to get the rights to Jalen Duren. Duren, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound teenager with outlier physical gifts, may make chasing restricted free agent Deandre Ayton unnecessary.

Trading Grant also opened the locker room for Cunningham and the floor for Saddiq Bey. Grant provided fine leadership as a Piston. He wanted to grow in that area after leaving Denver and he did. He is not the natural Cunningham is.

With Grant gone, it’s Cunningham’s team.

“The alpha dog,” Casey said.

Bey, meanwhile, took more shots, scored more points and showed more efficiency when Grant didn’t play last season. Expect that to continue this fall, when he’s likely most nights to take more shots than everyone but Cunningham.

And if Ivey is stationed on the weakside during high-ball screen actions with Cunningham and Marvin Bagley or Isaiah Stewart or Duren, then Bey will have even more room to shoot than he did a season ago.

It may seem counterintuitive that Ivey should help open the floor for Bey and Isaiah Livers and anyone else who wants to shoot when he is not a reliable shooter himself yet. His kind of speed, though, will demand a second defender shade toward his side to protect the rim.

If that happens consistently — whether he’s catching the ball on the weakside or cutting backside or curling off screens near the elbow — if the defense has to show a defender and a half when he gets the ball with intent to attack, he’ll have to prove how he can read those shifts and take advantage of the openings the threat of his speed will create.

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In some cases, this will be a lob. In some, a dump off to, say, Stewart or a cutter; Killian Hayes shows such instincts. In some cases, his rim runs will demand kick-outs, like Cunningham does, or Luka Doncic, or most good wing players in the NBA who leverage shooting or speed or both to consistently get into the lane.

As Casey said Friday, these decisions must be made in a millisecond. And as fast as Ivey is, he’ll still have to adjust to the speed of the NBA. Just as Cunningham did last season, when even his elite processing brain needed time to navigate an NBA court.

It’s true that the court should be more open for Ivey than it was in college. It’s also true that while an NBA court may have more space than a college court — skill spreads the floor — players have less time to react within that space.

Close-outs happen more quickly. Double teams come from more angles, and more fluidly. Defenses are more cohesive and can adjust from possession to possession, as  Golden State did in the Finals when its defense moved like an amoeba.

Ivey and Duren have natural gifts to help offset the differences they’ll contend with. Not too many near 7-footers run like Duren can or arrive with a grown man’s body at 18. If all he does is run the floor both ways, he’ll make a difference.

He’ll also find easy buckets if he’s running with Ivey or Cunningham, or even Hayes, who has shown good transition passing skills. Speaking of Hayes, Casey envisions him on the floor with Cunningham and Ivey, playing a three-guard lineup at times.

And while you’re right to wonder about shooting with this group, just remember that Bey or someone who shoots similarly — assuming the Pistons find a couple more shooters in free agency — should be out there to spread the floor.

[ Jalen Duren has what can’t be coached, Pistons eager to teach him the rest ]

In theory, the three of them make sense together, especially defensively, where Cunningham and Hayes already have shown the chops to be stellar on-ball hawks. Ivey said last week he is determined to use his speed and quickness on that end.

If he does, the three of them will make life difficult for anyone. If he continues to shoot better, as he did at Purdue, the possibilities are endless.

No wonder Casey called the thought of what this team might become a “big-time” dream. There is talent.

Talent that isn’t hard to imagine fitting together. Talent that will stir this franchise and basketball lovers in this region as soon as this fall. Talent that can’t be taught or repped or drilled. Talent that will frustrate on many nights and exhilarate on others.

The rebuild is here in full. It finally feels promising.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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