Detroit – Buckle up, folks. If this was a prelude to the reload, it’s going to be boisterous and bumpy, and occasionally blurry.
That one blur? That was rookie Jaden Ivey zipping to the basket, game on the line, clocking ticking down, dropping in a layup and drawing a foul to push the Pistons’ lead to five.
That other sudden blur? The was fellow first-round pick Jalen Duren, reaching way back with the ball in his right hand and throwing it through the hoop with such force, it shook the fans to their feet. By the end, they were standing again, cheering madly, as the Pistons sealed the victory, 113-109 over Orlando in the season-opener Wednesday night.
It was raucous and riveting, with just enough rough edges to remind you the Pistons are still in the formative stages. There was young talent all over the floor, including the Magic’s splendid rookie Paola Banchero. On this night, the young guys looked like veterans and the veterans played like energetic young guys. The third key newcomer for the Pistons is 33-year-old Bogan Bogdanovic, and all he did was spark a surge with his dead-eye shooting, six-for-10 on 3-pointers and a team-high 24 points.
We know the Pistons will hit speed bumps with one of the league’s youngest rosters, but at least in the opener, it didn’t knock them off the road. Even the missed dunks were something to behold, and Duren had a couple of those. Nothing like the thunder dunk in the second quarter, when he took a pass from Cory Joseph and leapt into the highlights by leaping over Orlando’s Chuma Okeke.
That effectively ended the Pistons’ early jitters. The Magic had gone on a 19-0 run to grab a 15-point lead, but the Pistons kept driving. And dunking. And even playing a little defense.
Duren, the youngest player in the NBA at 18, finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. He came off the bench and made it difficult for Dwane Casey to pull him back. Ivey played with similar fearlessness in his debut, with 19 points and four assists.
“That’s what this year is about for (Duren), to grow,” Casey said. “And also for Ivey, both those young kids are our future, and they showed it tonight. Did we make a lot of mistakes? Yes. Believe me, a lot of bad switches, miscommunication. But they were hard mistakes.”
Orlando is in the same reconstruction state as the Pistons, so it was the competitive clash you’d expect. It will get much tougher for the Pistons very quickly. But how often do you see this many first-game highlights from a pair of rookies? Ivey was taken fifth out of Purdue and Duren was selected 13th out of Memphis.
One moment the 6-10 Duren was ramming a dunk attempt off the rim. The next moment Ivey was scooping up the loose ball and powering for a layup and a foul. His three-point play with 4:06 left gave the Pistons a chance to breathe, leading 104-99. My guess is, Ivey isn’t going to give defenses many chances to breathe, as he displayed his touted speed on numerous fastbreaks.
“That was a special night, just the energy in the building, I felt it from the time I stepped out there,” Ivey said. “I just try every night to use my burst. I feel like I can get past some of the quickest guys. That’s just my mindset. I felt I was comfortable tonight.”
That was the surprising part, at least to the untrained eye. Ivey played 32 minutes and Duren played 22, and both looked comfortable even in crunch time. The Pistons committed only 12 turnovers and deftly avoided foul trouble, with no player collecting more than three.
At closing time, “old pros” Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Stewart made the clutch plays. With Detroit leading 108-107, Cunningham took the inbounds at the top of the key, dribbled toward the baseline, hit a wall of Orlando players and flicked the ball to Stewart in the opposite corner. The 6-9 center, who’s been honing his 3-point accuracy, drilled it with 11.6 seconds left. It was his only 3 of the game, but after starting 0-for-3, there was no hesitation on the final one.
The glow from the opener will fade as a brutal schedule unfolds, and the expectations don’t change. The Pistons were 23-59 a year ago and will have to scrap to reach 30 wins. But this was the rough sketch of what they hope to become. Ivey’s speed instantly translates to the NBA game, while he learns when to drive and when to dish. Duren’s rebounding and shot-blocking translate too, while he learns how to switch on defense and other assignments.
As for that floor-shaking dunk, Duren low-keyed it with a simple smile.
“I felt like it was my I’m-finally-here moment,” he said. “It was good.”
It was the crowd’s finally-here moment too, and the Little Caesars Arena sellout of 20,190 was rollicking all night. Owner Tom Gores sat courtside, and at halftime he was raving about Duren’s dunk and the Pistons’ direction under Casey and GM Troy Weaver. The Bogdanovich acquisition was a particularly shrewd move by Weaver.
Oh, and those prized rookies too.
“Obviously, the athleticism is incredible and they’re just great people to work with,” Gores said. “You look at Duren, 18 years old, he doesn’t seem fazed. Jaden has just a great heart. You know I’m an optimistic person and this team has the makings of something special. … You have to have growing pains, but the thing about our team is they have the character to actually go through pain – and we’re going to go through a lot, no doubt. What’s the average age on our team, 21 or 22?”
Bogdanovic skews it slightly higher, but the point is well-taken. The Pistons have dramatically improved their athleticism, and likely improved their 3-point shooting. When Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Livers and Alec Burks return from injury, the depth will be improved.
Casey said before the game he was apprehensive to see how his young players handled the glare. When Orlando raced to a 21-6 lead less than six minutes in, his anxiety was warranted. He didn’t really know what to expect, and he certainly doesn’t want to inflate expectations.
“The great things about (Duren) and Ivey, both of them are great coachable kids,” Casey said. “Some nights they’re gonna look like superstars and other nights they’re gonna miss wide-open dunks like they did. So we have to go with the good and the bad until they catch up.”
If the Pistons can be this entertaining, the fans will come along for the ride. Just be ready for bumps and scintillating blurs, because either is possible at any time.