Isaiah Livers easily could have sulked last summer, and nobody would have blamed him.
As he recovered from surgery on his right foot to repair a stress fracture, he was unable to play in the NBA Summer League last year as a rookie. Livers, a second-round pick, didn’t waste that time as a bystander; instead, he watched intently and took mental notes.
The rehabilitation period in his rookie season was a time to work on himself and to analyze the game from a different lens. Livers was preparing for the day his number was called.
Livers was one of the Pistons’ most efficient 3-point shooters, despite playing only 19 games last season, so knew he’d be able to knock down shots once he got on the floor. Instead, he wanted to prioritize rebounding, defense and minimize small mistakes.
The work has paid off, exemplified in their first two Summer League games in Las Vegas, helping the Pistons jump to a 2-0 start. Livers showed his defensive intensity in Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers despite a poor shooting outing, and he was the team’s primary scoring option in a win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday.
It’s a manifestation of the work he did last summer.
“When I was rehabbing, it was my time to work on myself and get myself together. I also took that time to take a lot of notes during games and I watched little mistakes so when I come in, I don’t make those little mistakes,” Livers said. “Every coach’s pet peeve is someone who continues to make small mistakes. I made sure to clean all that up and I was good. I knew shots were going to fall, but to stay on the floor, I knew I had to defend and rebound.”
Livers said he looked forward to this year’s Summer League so he could gain more chemistry with his teammates, especially since he wasn’t able to play last summer.
“My least-favorite time was last year around this time, because I think I was just getting out of the (walking) boot,” Livers said. “I was watching my teammates play every night and practice every day — and that hurt.
“So, I just took that to my workouts when I got healthy and I’m just grateful every time I step on the floor.”
Shooting is just one of Livers’ specialties. He made a team-high 42% (27-of-64) on 3-pointers last season. He expects all of his shots to go in, even when he’s not shooting well.
After shooting 1-of-8 from distance against the Blazers, he improved in the second game, going 4-of-5 against the Wizards.
“I wasn’t worried about his shots last game; they were good looks and today he was 4-of-5,” Pistons Summer League coach Jordan Brink said Saturday. “We knew he was going to bounce back and we talked to him about that.”
Livers’ defensive adjustments were evident on Friday. He was active around the rim with two blocks, including an emphatic chase-down on Blazers guard Brandon Williams, and he came away with two steals.
“Last game was a great example of how you can impact winning when you’re not scoring and you’re not shooting it well,” Brink said. “Some nights, your shot isn’t going to fall and you still have to bring something, and last game was a great example for the rest of the team of how you do that when your shot’s not going.”
In the win over Washington, Livers often communicated defensive matchups to his teammates, calling for switches when a screen was coming, or made more complex calls and reads, allowing the Pistons to avoid mismatches. It’s an example of one of the small details that make him an asset on both ends of the court.
Defensive communication is an intangible Livers picked up as a junior at Michigan, when former Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard was hired as head coach. Howard replaced John Beilein, who is now the Pistons’ senior advisor of player development.
“With that switch — no disrespect to coach Beilein — but when coach Howard came in, he made sure to establish that NBA lingo, the NBA communication,” Livers said. “It was hard at first but once you got it, it was natural. My time off last year gave me a lot of time to see what coach (Dwane) Casey likes to do defensively. Once I locked in and did that, I was all good and it felt familiar for me.”
Summer League is just a sampler, but if Livers continues to defend well and space the floor with his shooting, the Pistons will have some choices to make with the rotation. Along with Saddiq Bey, Alec Burks, Hamidou Diallo and Isaiah Stewart’s recent transition to the forward spot could make dividing the minutes an interesting exercise. Having several options with different skill sets at the forward spots could become a position of strength.
That’s looking way ahead, though. In the meantime, Livers is focusing on shorter-term goals.
He recently found out about the league’s new Summer League championship rings that will be awarded to the winner of the tournament. He showed a photo of the rings to his teammates, which gave the Pistons more motivation to finish as the last team standing. Detroit is looking to take those rings home, he said.
As for next season, Livers plans to use the same mentality he had for this summer, especially since he couldn’t participate in Summer League as a rookie last season.
“Like I said earlier, I’m blessed and grateful to have a full healthy summer — knock on wood,” Livers said. “Next season, it’s gonna be just like the same approach to Summer League. I’m gonna do my job defensively. I’m gonna knock down open shots. I’m gonna do whatever coach Casey wants me to do.”
Rod Beard contributed to this story.
Contact Mike Curtis anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MikeACurtis2.