Why Detroit Pistons’ exciting, freak-filled rookie debuts were so encouraging

Detroit Free Press

Jaden Ivey spent a moment in reflection before his Detroit Pistons’ debut.

“I just kind of talked to my grandpa, who’s up in heaven,” Ivey said of his grandfather, James Hunter, who played defensive back for the Detroit Lions.  “I just told him, you know, ‘just give me the strength to go out there and compete at a high level and just play to my strengths.’”

His strengths? This kid can flat-out fly. Ivey was faster than anybody on the court on Wednesday night, blowing by veterans, scoring 19 points and adding four assists in the Pistons’ 113-109 victory over the Orlando Magic.

It was a thrilling, highlight-filled debut. The kind that should fill Pistons fans with hope.

Which brings us to Jalen Duren, the other Pistons rookie.

He was so worked up that he couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. “All I was thinkin’ about was the game,” Duren said.

I mean, of course, right? Here was an 18-year-old playing in his first NBA game, in front of a jacked-up crowd, with a billionaire owner sitting at midcourt; and then all Duren did was score 14 points, grab 11 rebounds and block three shots — and impact several others — without committing a single foul in 21 minutes.

“He’s a freak,” Ivey said.

They both are.

What a fun night. What a fantastic debut for both of them.

“Duren was a monster,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey gushed.

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Nobody is putting the Pistons in the NBA Finals. Probably not even the playoffs. But you can see something special under all the nerves and youthful mistakes.

You can see the pieces starting to fit together, how Ivey can change a game with his speed, and you can see Duren blocking shots and grabbing rebounds and rolling to the hoop — it was a thing of beauty. He’s so dang smooth and long.

And I’m not even sure he knows what he’s doing yet.

TOM GORES:Pistons have ‘the makings of something special’

“All the other stuff’s gonna come — the free throws, jump shots, jump hooks, all this stuff’s gonna come,” Casey said.

This was just a baby step.

The kind you record on video and put directly on Facebook.

Look out Earth, here comes the ball

It wasn’t just the points. Or the blocks. Or the rebounds.

It was the jaw-dropping highlights.

Ivey showed off his lightning-quick speed late in the third quarter when he stole the ball, flew down the court in a blink — OK, maybe it was two blinks — weaved through the defense with ease and scored an effortless layup.

He bounded back up the court, screaming at the fans. Man, you gotta love the enthusiasm.

He was like a live wire. Zapping on the ground. And you aren’t quite sure where it’s going, but it’s so fascinating, you just gotta watch every second.

“It was just special,” he said.

Maybe, sometimes, he was going so fast he like he was going to run out of his own skin.

But he settled down.

And then, the Duren moment?

That was unbelievable.

Duren started out fighting for a rebound — all effort and athleticism — tipping it to himself and getting the ball to Cory Joseph.

Duren kept hustling toward the court and Joseph fed him perfectly.

Duren took a step, bounced up and jammed it home. His teammates went nuts. The crowd went crazy. And Duren started screaming before he even came back to Earth: “Agghhhhh!”

“I felt like it was kind of my own, ‘I’m finally here moment,’” Duren said.

Welcome to Detroit, kid.

On the next play, the ball slipped through Ivey’s fingers.

That’s how this is going to go.

One magical moment.

Followed by a cringeworthy, learning moment.

Just a starting point

Yes, they made mistakes.

Tons of them. There were defensive lapses and miscommunications and bad switches and — awe, who cares? You know what? All of those are fixable mistakes.

That’s the exciting part.

This team still hasn’t grown into its big-boy clothes and it’s already fun to watch.

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You can’t take your eyes off these kids.

“We will see some nights where you’re gonna look like superstars and other nights you’re gonna miss wide-open dunks like they did,” Casey said.

So be patient. You will have to take the good with the bad.

But the fun part isn’t just the rookies. It’s the veteran presence of Bojan Bogdanovic, who steadied the ship, scoring 24 points and tossing in six 3-pointers.

And there is the development of Cade Cunningham, who had 18 points and 10 assists.

“They’re working their asses off,” owner Tom Gores said. “And you look at Duren — 18 years old. He didn’t seem fazed did he? And Jaden has a great heart. … This team has the makings of something special.”

I know it’s early, and this is a knee-jerk reaction, but I can’t disagree with him.

The other interesting part about this night wasn’t just the win. It was all the possibility, a small glimpse into the future. Not every night will be like this. Maybe, not even a majority of them for this season. They are gonna lose a ton.

But this was fun and encouraging. And if this is the starting point, man, it’s going to be interesting to see where this is headed.

After this magical debut, we know one thing: this team has some freaks.

And you can build something special with freaks.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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