LAS VEGAS — Practice was over and the coaches were milling around the edge of the court and a few players fanned out to their own basket to keep working.
There was Detroit Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey, the ball in his hand, taking a hard dribble with his first step toward the rim:
Left foot. Right foot. Left jump. Left-handed layup.
He was purposefully wrong-footing himself and finishing with only his left. Over and over he went, faster each time.
In the NBA, space disappears in an instant. Bringing the other hand to the ball takes time. So does concentrating on feet when attacking the rim — players are taught from a young age to jump off their right foot from the left side of the rim and their left foot from the right side.
This promotes balance. But in a game, tight defense can upend that balance, and if a player can’t finish off the “wrong” foot and needs another step, it’s traveling.
Finishing off either foot, however, can throw off the rhythm of the defender. They are counting on a sequence of steps everyone learned as kids.
Ivey is no longer a kid. Neither is Jalen Duren. Or Cade Cunningham. Or Saddiq Bey or Isaiah Stewart or Killian Hayes or Isaiah Livers.
Oh, some of them can’t buy a beer still. None of them can rent a car. Yet in the NBA, they have to compete against players who’ve bought beer for a decade or more. In the NBA, they can’t be kids.
So, there was Ivey, working on a drill designed to expand his muscle memory with the goal of getting to the rim a fraction of a second quicker, and to be able to finish when he gets knocked off his line of attack.
Left step. Right step. Left jump. Layup with the left hand.
OMARI SANKOFA II: Summer League narratives: How ready are Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren?
Las Vegas may offer 24-hours of hedonism if you’re into that kind of thing (fine, who doesn’t love steak and eggs at 4 in the morning?), but the temptations of this place are merely the backdrop to the real reason the NBA gathers here for its Summer League:
For drills. For practice. For rookies to play with second-year guys, for G Leaguers to make their case for a promotion, for those on the fringe looking for a shot. For coaches to set up pivot drills and slow-down drills meant to do exactly as it sounds: slow down.
That’ll be critical for Ivey, the Pistons’ No. 5 draft pick, whose burst and explosiveness got him to this place without him having to consider any other speed. Well, he does now. And talked about it after his debut Thursday night against Portland.
“In college … I would just go 100%,” he said. “In this league, you have to change your speeds.”
And so, Ivey worked on changing his speed Friday during practice, and worked on slowing down as he gets into the paint, a place he should live in this season.
Cade Cunningham worked on his shooting. His handle. His ball security. His efficiency.
He wants to get “comfortable feeling I’m owning my space,” he said after practice, “in the paint, in traffic.”
Cunningham isn’t playing in the games, but he wanted to practice with his new teammates. He also wanted to sit courtside and support them.
He’s gained close to 15 pounds since the end of the season he said. That will help him own his space. The time he has spent in the practice gym will help that, too.
The drills played out all over the court on the Pistons’ off-day, the kind of drills meant to help the youngsters bloom.
Little things, like reworking steps, decelerating in the lane, raising arms high enough to see armpits on a pivot with the ball, something Jalen Duren repped again and again.
The Pistons rookie center showed power and feel in his debut Thursday during limited minutes — the coaches didn’t want to overextend him when he couldn’t practice because the trade for him hadn’t been stamped by the league.
It was finally approved Thursday. He didn’t take long to show he was more than a rim-protecting lob threat. Duren showed feel. He showed vision on the short roll. He showed he could pivot in the paint and kick it out to a shooter.
And, so, he spent part of Friday taking the ball, raising it above his head, pivoting, keeping his eyes level, and scanning the court for the places his teammates should be in the offense. That he already sees the floor says a lot about the 18-year-old’s understanding of the game.
After Friday’s practice, he will see the floor a little better. Until he practices again, and sees it even more, and so on.
These are the spaces where teams are built, where camaraderie and familiarity sturdy the ground underfoot. Draft night can be fun, and certainly was for those who love the Pistons.
And while talent is critical, and no amount of practice or drills will make you or me an NBA player, whatever the Pistons become this season starts here, in a weathered practice gym tucked off a darkened tunnel away from the cameras and the most famous gambling strip in the country.
One step, one pivot, one single-handed layup at a time.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.