Three Detroit Pistons position battles that will define training camp

Detroit Free Press

We’re roughly a month away from training camp, and less than two months from opening night.

The Detroit Pistons have a lot to resolve.

They have 16 players on their main roster after re-signing Rodney McGruder, so at least one roster move will be necessary. Head coach Dwane Casey will also have to organize his rotation with several new players, and multiple returnees, jostling for minutes.

Here are three positional battles to keep an eye on during training camp:

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Hamidou Diallo vs. Isaiah Livers

A year ago, Diallo entered training camp in a three-way battle with Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson for two rotation spots. Diallo only played six of the Pistons’ first 12 games, but eventually became one of their most reliable wings and has now outlasted both players. He averaged 11.0 points per game on a career-best 49.6% overall shooting, and his athleticism and rebounding helped him carve out a unique role off the bench. When the Pistons suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak, Diallo stepped into a bigger role as a primary offensive option and held his own.

Despite that, Diallo may have to earn his place in this season’s rotation. His primary competition will likely be Livers, who finished last year strong while Diallo missed the final 16 games with a broken left index finger. Livers shot 42.2% from 3, and his floor-spacing could make him indispensable for a team that shot just 32.6% from deep — the second-worst mark in the NBA — in 2021-22. If Livers can also consistently defend well, he’ll fit any lineup. His summer league performance teased that he could be a difference-maker on that end of the floor.

If Cade Cunningham, Cory Joseph, Killian Hayes, Jaden Ivey, Alec Burks and Saddiq Bey are rotation staples this season, it likely leaves one wing rotation spot for Diallo or Livers. Diallo’s athleticism on the perimeter stood out last year, but it’ll be duplicated this season by Ivey. His off-ball activity and tools on defense are valuable, but his lack of outside shooting (24.7% from 3 last year) caps his upside. Shooting better than 33% from 3 would significantly help his odds of sticking in the rotation, as the coaching staff will likely prioritize having an adequate amount of shooting on the floor.

Nerlens Noel vs. Jalen Duren

It’s entirely possible both Noel and Duren will start next season outside of the rotation. The construction of the roster, as well as Dwane Casey’s preference to cap his rotation at nine to 10 players on most nights, may necessitate that only three bigs will play nightly. Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley III are positioned for big roles, and Kelly Olynyk also appears to be a safe bet as the lone center who is a reliable shooter.

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But there will be nights where Casey plays four bigs because of injuries, foul trouble or a drastic point disparity. It’s tough to see Noel and Duren playing much together, given they are both rim protectors and will take the vast majority of their shots in the paint. So the coaching staff will have to pick between the two.

Duren, the 13th overall pick this year’s draft, is one of the highest-upside players on the roster. He’s a gifted athlete and should be able to impact the game with his athleticism from Day 1. However, Duren will be just 18 on opening night. Noel has averaged 1.5 shots per game for his career, but durability has been an issue. He appeared in just 25 games last season while dealing with a right knee sprain, a sore back and plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

The battle could be Duren’s to lose. He was high on Troy Weaver’s draft board, and the front office was ecstatic to acquire him late in the lottery without giving up significant assets. The coaching staff should prioritize his development — especially since Noel has a team option next summer. But if Duren looks lost on the floor, Noel is a veteran who can capably defend and rebound and give the coaching staff a safe backup option until Duren is ready.

More:Detroit Pistons schedule takeaways: First half full of road games, back-to-backs

Killian Hayes vs. Jaden Ivey

It’s in the Pistons’ best interest that both Hayes and Ivey reach their potential. Ivey, of course, was widely considered a top-four prospect in the 2022 draft and has All-Star potential. Hayes has yet to live up to being drafted seventh overall in 2020, but is a strong perimeter defender and capable passer. One of Casey’s most important tasks next season will be evaluating how Hayes and Ivey fit alongside not just Cunningham, but with each other.

On paper, Ivey and Hayes have some complimentary skills. Ivey’s speed and leaping ability can make up for Hayes’ lack of it, and Ivey’s ability to create scoring opportunities without the ball should mesh with Hayes’ playmaking. Hayes can take tougher defensive assignments, potentially saving Ivey from foul trouble. However, Hayes has been a poor outside shooter and it remains to be seen how well Ivey will shoot. Ivey shot 35.8% from 3 during his sophomore season at Purdue, but slumped to 30.9% in Big Ten play. Considering Ivey only shot 25.8% from 3 overall as a freshman and slipped to 21.6% in conference play that season, his shooting is a genuine question mark.

It’s tough to play two poor-shooting guards together. Cunningham is the face of the franchise and will have the ball in his hands even if he doesn’t significantly improve last season’s 31.4% mark from outside. The Pistons have ample time next season to let their three lottery guards figure it out. But Hayes will become extension-eligible next offseason, assuming the franchise picks up his $7.4 million club option. He needs to show he can offer some utility as a scorer, whether as a floor-spacer or finishing in the paint.

SHAWN WINDSOR: Killian Hayes is not a bust. But the clock is ticking

Ideally, the significant work Hayes has put in to improve his shooting will begin to pay off. It would make it much easier to pair him with Ivey or Cunningham, and for the front office to make a long-term financial commitment to him. Since Ivey has a longer timeline to deliver on his potential, the pressure is on Hayes. If Ivey hits the ground running and Hayes struggles to improve on last season’s shooting percentages, it could lead to Ivey seizing a more significant role in the rotation. The opposite is true as well — if Hayes has a breakout season, it’ll make it easier for the coaching staff to ease Ivey in rather than giving him a big role from the jump.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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