The Detroit Pistons have embraced a “trial-by-fire” approach with their recent guards taken early in the NBA draft. The results so far have been mixed.
Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham were both rookie starters as soon as they were healthy. Cunningham started slow after missing training camp, preseason and five of his first six regular season games with an ankle injury. But he rebounded and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, as well as All-Rookie First Team honors. The season before, Hayes also started slow while dealing with injuries. Those pains, and a up-and-down second season, sent him to the bench in January of Year 2. He appeared to be more comfortable running the second unit last season.
Next up: Jaden Ivey, the former Purdue guard who was the No. 5 overall pick in July’s draft. Will Ivey start, or will he be the first lottery guard of the Troy Weaver era to come off of the bench as a rookie? It’s too early for coach Dwane Casey to set his starting lineup. But from a readiness standpoint, Ivey is in the same category as Cunningham and Hayes, Casey said.
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“I see him in that group,” Casey said. “I’m not going to put a starting lineup in ink yet, still in pencil. He’s in that group. He’s a talented young man. There’s so much to learn in the NBA, and I don’t want to put any pressure on our young guys, but it’s so much to learn. The game is so fast, that close-out gap closes up quick, as Cade found out last year multiple times. It took him until the second half of the year to figure out the speed of the game. I know that’s where Jaden and Jalen (Duren) are with the NBA.”
Cunningham and Hayes have an experience advantage, and Cunningham, of course, is one of the few players on Detroit’s roster virtually guaranteed to start on opening night. But Ivey possesses something his counterparts don’t — elite, game-bending athleticism.
Ivey’s teammates have been getting a feel for his speed and quickness in camp this week. His first step and ability to push the ball in transition were big reasons why the 6-foot-4 guard was widely considered a top-four prospect in his draft class. He averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a sophomore at Purdue and was most dangerous when going downhill with the ball. Few college defenders could stay in front of him. Few NBA defenders are likely to.
“Jaden’s just an amazing athlete,” Hayes said at Monday’s media day. “We see him in practice grabbing the rebound, going coast-to-coast. Super athletic. Great guy as well. I feel like matching up with him, I can play off the ball, he can play off the ball, he can bring it up. Also, we have Cade that can bring up the ball. I feel like it’s going to match up pretty well.
“He’ll make it a lot easier for everybody,” Cunningham added. “Obviously he has a great feel for the game and he wants to win. I think that’s something that’s easy to see. He wants to play through his team and he loves to share the ball. All of those things are something you love to see in somebody that’s joining the team. His athletic ability, his quickness, his speed will help us stretch the floor out a lot more and keep defenses honest. He brings a different dynamic to our team with his athleticism and his skillset.”
The Pistons struggled to space the floor last season, as they ranked 29th in 3-point shooting (32.6%). New additions Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks, along with a bigger role for Isaiah Livers and improvement from other players, should help Detroit improve this season. Ivey will have to show his shooting ability, but his speed should help Detroit’s spacing as well.
Other than Jerami Grant, the Pistons didn’t have many players capable of collapsing the defense last season. Ivey’s ability to beat defenders and finish at the rim will pull the defense in, opening up clean shot attempts and driving lanes for his teammates.
It remains to be seen if Ivey will get the starting nod, but Casey and the rest of the Pistons are encouraged so far.
“It’s competition, but the kid is different,” Casey said. “The other guys are probably ahead of him in terms of NBA experience, but as far as athleticism, speed and quickness, he’s something different that we’re going to have. That will be the difference between he and Cade and Killian and those guys is his God-given speed.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.
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