We’re less than five weeks away from the start of the NBA season, and only three weeks away from the Detroit Pistons returning to the floor. They’ll tip off their preseason slate against the New York Knicks on Oct. 4, and their regular season slate against the Orlando Magic on Oct. 19.
After going 23-59 last season, the Pistons have something to prove. There’s no playoff mandate, but they’re eager to show that the “restoring,” as general manager Troy Weaver likes to brand their rebuild, is still on track.
These three players, in particular, have the most to prove next season:
It feels like an exaggeration to say that the clock is ticking for Hayes, the Pistons’ 2020 lottery pick. He solidified himself as the best perimeter defender and passer on the roster last season, and he turned just 21 in July. His best basketball, presumably, is still ahead of him.
But Detroit’s roster has changed significantly since Hayes was drafted, applying additional pressure on him to improve his primary weaknesses — scoring. He’s a career 37.4% shooter, and has made only 26.8% of his 3-pointers. It’ll be tough for him to stick in the NBA with those percentages, despite his prowess as a playmaker and defender.
With Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey now in the fold, the Pistons have used three-consecutive lottery picks on on-ball guards. That doesn’t make Hayes inherently expendable — if he can knock down 3-pointers or finish more shots inside the arc, he should be able to fit next to both Ivey and Cunningham, especially if Ivey is a capable shooter. The Pistons need backcourt depth, and guards who can hit shots and defend multiple positions are valuable. Developing his outside shot has been a point of emphasis for Detroit’s coaching staff since he was drafted, but it’s yet to translate to the floor.
The Pistons prioritized keeping the ball in Hayes’ hands last season, moving him to the bench in January to stagger him with Cunningham more. When the two shared the court, Hayes often stood in the corner as Cunningham ran the offense. Ivey’s arrival could put more pressure on Hayes to make the most of his off-ball minutes. Hayes will become extension-eligible next offseason if the Pistons pick up his fourth-year team option this fall, so he’s in prove-it mode.
Former Pistons guard Bruce Brown, who played for the Brooklyn Nets last year and is now with the Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics guard Derrick White have become valuable role players on contending teams by defending, moving the ball at a high level and being just good-enough when they’re called upon to score. Neither are high-volume outside shooters, but both are significantly more efficient inside the arc. Hayes doesn’t need to become a lights-out shooter to solidify his future in Detroit, but he does need to maximize the scoring opportunities that are presented to him.
Marvin Bagley III
Bagley had a strong post-trade deadline showing with the Pistons last season and parlayed it into a three-year, $37.5 million contract this offseason. Bagley’s interior scoring and vertical spacing lifted Detroit’s offense, and he developed strong chemistry with Cunningham. He’ll be one of the team’s most reliable scorers next season.
But his new contract is a tad richer than many around the league expected. Bagley, the second overall pick of the 2018 draft, hasn’t lived up to his draft position. He’s a talented scorer and rebounder, but a poor defender and shooter. It caps his upside and could force Dwane Casey to make tough rotation decisions next season to accommodate his deficiencies. If Bagley doesn’t improve on his career 29.1% mark from 3, will Detroit’s offense be able to thrive when he plays next to other non-shooting bigs Nerlens Noel, Jalen Duren and (for now) Isaiah Stewart? If he continues to struggle as a rim protector, will the Pistons find a way to cover for him defensively?
After a failed start to his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings, Detroit’s front office invested in him, believes in him and trusts that he will continue to grow his game. He proved doubters wrong last season, and now has to show that he can round out his skillset.
The Pistons’ 2020 second-round pick is still looking to secure his future with the team. He has shown flashes and was dominant with the Motor City Cruise last season when he was named to the All-NBA G League second team. He’s a gifted athlete but is still learning how to apply his gifts in the NBA. In 37 appearances with the Pistons last season, he shot 39% overall and 23.3% from 3.
The Pistons will have a roster crunch when training camp opens later this month. They have 17 players on the main roster, but that will be reduced to 16 when the team reaches a buyout agreement with Kemba Walker. The roster will have to be further reduced to 15 before opening night. Lee, who is on an inexpensive deal guaranteed for just one more season, is likely on the fringe of making the cut considering the Pistons’ guard depth. A strong camp would help his odds, but he has to convince the Pistons that he can make plays and defend at an NBA level.
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.