The NBA learning curve is tough for all rookies. It’s especially tough for those who primarily handle the ball. The Detroit Pistons, for the third season in a row, have a rookie point guard in their starting five. It’s still the preseason, but Jaden Ivey looks up to the challenge so far.
Ivey made his unofficial NBA debut against the New York Knicks last Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. There may not be a bigger stage in the NBA, but Ivey looked comfortable and confident. Friday brought a different challenge — a New Orleans Pelicans team with size in the paint, and two pesky defenders in Jose Alvarado and fellow rookie Dyson Daniels. Ivey wasn’t quite as sharp as he was on Tuesday, but was still one of Detroit’s most effective players.
Thus far, he has shown why he was widely considered a top-four prospect in the 2022 draft, and why the Pistons got a steal at the fifth pick. Ivey’s NBA education is still in its infancy, but his natural athletic gifts and ahead-of-schedule passing have justified coach Dwane Casey’s decision to make him a Day 1 preseason starter. So far, he has the coaching staff’s trust.
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“It means a lot,” Ivey said on Sunday of starting both preseason games. “It means the coach trusts me a lot, honestly. I put a lot of work into it but it means everybody trusts me to go out there and put forth for this team. I’m just going to keep trying to do my job every single day when I step out on the floor.”
Ivey’s quick first step and open-floor speed have already created issues for opponents. Of his 30 points thus far, 15 have been scored in the paint, 12 at the free throw line. His athleticism turns basketball into a simpler game. He gets into the lane with relative ease compared to many point guards, and he typically draws multiple defenders when he does so.
The Pistons have better spacing than Ivey had at Purdue, which ran much of its offense through two big men last season. He said it feels easier getting into the lane in the NBA, and it has raised his floor even when struggling to hit shots. Ivey shot 6-for-9 Tuesday, but just 2-for-12 Friday. He made up for it by making all nine of his free throws.
Casey called Ivey’s passing a “godsend” during training camp last week, and preseason has shown why. Ivey’s passing was considered a growth area by many draft analysts, as he tallied nearly as many turnovers (94) as assists (110) during his sophomore season. Through preseason and in Las Vegas Summer League, he has shown an awareness and willingness to weaponize his ability to get downhill and draw in the defense, creating open shots for his teammates.
“I feel like passing is a part of my game that I love to do,” Ivey said. “I really love to get my teammates involved. The spacing helps a lot. I get to make quick reads, quick decisions. Every time I step on the floor, I try to make the right reads every time and just trying to, every day in practice, just sharpen those reads up.”
Despite the positive signs, we’ve also seen that Ivey can’t rely solely on his speed. He has eight assists and seven turnovers, and most of those were due to him getting lost in traffic and losing his handle. New Orleans’ defenders sent Ivey to the line multiple times, but also did a good job of anticipating his drives, denying him space and swiping at the ball.
Defenses will challenge Ivey to protect the ball and navigate traffic without getting lost. NBA defenders are faster and longer than those in college. Until he proves he can consistently knock down 3-pointers, teams will dare him to shoot and deny lanes to the rim. He’s 2-for-7 on 3s so far. He can positively impact the game with his speed and passing alone, but there are still lessons for him to learn.
“He is huge with his speed,” Casey said. “He’s gonna get there. What he’s gotta do now is recognize gaps, how quickly those gaps close up, how long guys are. They close up a lot quicker now than they did in college. He’s got something you can’t teach, and you all know now. Now we gotta learn how to pick our spots to use it. We’re excited about his future.”