Niyo: Pistons could take a few steps forward, but improvements won’t all come at once

Detroit News

Every now and then, Pistons fans will see the future this season.

It’ll come in glimpses, if not glances, and with audible gasps as well as groans. But all the young talent that general manager Troy Weaver has assembled in his first two years on the job in Detroit should begin to make its presence felt before too long.

And that, “more than anything else, is what excites me,” said Dwane Casey, the Pistons’ head coach, on the eve of his team’s regular-season opener Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena.

“It should excite our fans, too,” he added, before offering a disclaimer that’s still required here in Detroit, where the NBA playoffs are a distant memory and probably still a ways off. “But (the fans) should stay behind them, through thick and thin. Because there’s gonna be nights where some of the young guys are gonna look like superstars … and then the next night, maybe deer in headlights.”

And particularly Wednesday, when the Pistons tip off against the Orlando Magic, who knows what we’ll see? Casey’s team just completed a winless exhibition season in which a handful of rotational players either didn’t play or barely did. A few of them likely won’t be available to start the regular season, either.

That includes Marvin Bagley III, who was expected to start at center until suffering a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his right knee in the preseason home opener last week. That injury will sideline him for a month or more, and force Isaiah Stewart to move back to the center position to start this season. It’ll also force the Pistons’ hand to play rookie first-round pick Jalen Duren — the youngest player in the NBA — before he’s fully ready, since veteran backup Nerlens Noel (plantar fasciitis) just went through his first full practice Tuesday.

Also missing, for now, is another of Weaver’s offseason pickups in Alec Burks, a veteran catch-and-shoot threat on the wing who is still working his way back from offseason foot surgery. And for a head coach who ideally would’ve spent training camp and the preseason trying to integrate a half-dozen new faces into the mix, that just means it’ll take even longer to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

“I would say the first 20-25 games are going to kind of be the gauge of who we are and what we’re gonna be,” said Casey, the former NBA Coach of the Year who is entering his fifth season in Detroit.

Yet in the next breath, he’ll tell you, point-blank, “this is the most talent I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

It’s also the youngest team he has coached, though, and it’s one of the league’s five-youngest rosters to start the 2022-23 season. Two-thirds of the roster is under 25, and prior to Bagley’s injury, all five players in Detroit’s projected starting lineup were age 23 or under.

Teams that young simply don’t get very far in the NBA. And for a franchise that finished in the bottom five in the league standings the last three seasons — with a combined record of 63-157 — base camp is still a long, steep climb from here.

“Well, that’s the key,” Casey said, nodding. “Everybody wants to get there yesterday, and I do, too. But they have to understand there are bumps and bruises you gotta take.”

Still, the mind does wander more freely now, whether you’re watching Stewart and Duren locked in a physical one-on-one session after practice Tuesday on one court at the Pistons Performance Center or the trio of Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and rookie Jaden Ivey running through shooting drills on another.

The Pistons should be a better team offensively after finishing last season as the league’s most improved team (based on net rating) following the All-Star break.

Cunningham, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, is coming off an impressive rookie debut and will start this season healthy, unlike last fall. Ivey adds a much-needed explosive element to the starting backcourt, and he flashed that blow-by ability — and underrated passing — in the preseason. And Hayes was noticeably more aggressive and assertive leading the second unit in the preseason.

Last month’s trade for veteran forward Bojan Bogdanovich from Utah will help boost the Pistons’ three-point shooting, which ranked 29th in the league a year ago. (Bogdanovich shot better than 39% from three while averaging nearly seven attempts per game for the Jazz in the last three seasons.) So will Burks, when healthy, and Isaiah Livers, who shot 42.2% from deep in 19 games as a rookie. Stewart’s perimeter game is no longer a project, either, based on the 40% clip he carried through from summer league into the preseason.

Defensively, it requires some squinting to see any progress soon. The Pistons continue trying to switch everything on perimeter screens, but that has been a struggle with the current personnel. They also allowed a whopping 120 points in transition over four exhibition games, “and that’s enough for a month,” Casey said, shaking his head as he explained, “There are just so many things that you have to learn about the speed of this league.”

That said, a fast start out of the gate really would do wonders for this team’s confidence, as we’re seeing right now with the Red Wings and their revamped roster under new head coach Derek Lalonde.

Problem is, the Pistons’ opening 10-game stretch includes three sets of back-to-backs, including a nightmarish Halloween treat that starts with a home game Oct. 30 against the defending champs from Golden State and ends with a trip to Milwaukee to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and a rested Bucks team that’ll be in the middle of a six-game homestand.

 “I sleep like a baby; I wake up every two hours, looking at our schedule,” Casey joked. “But it is what it is. We gotta come in and compete. And it’s not a cop-out, but with young teams, it’s not about wins, it’s how we continue to grow. That’s my measuring stick.”

He knows there’ll be more growing pains this winter, particularly in a stacked Eastern Conference, where it took 43 wins last season — 20 more than the Pistons had — just to get into the play-in tournament as the 10th seed. Keep that in mind if you’re harboring hopes of cheering a playoff contender next spring. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but there’s a reason Vegas oddsmakers have the Pistons’ over-under set at 29.5 right now.

Then again, it’s the possibilities that should keep everyone watching, and waiting. And why the anticipation for tonight’s opener feels more like the beginning of the end than the end of the beginning.

“And once we get through that phase, I always tell these guys, there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Casey said. “But we’ve got to be ready for the downs as well as the ups.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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