Pistons mailbag: Breaking down rookie Jalen Duren’s upside, injuries and rotations

Detroit News

New York — After winning their season opener for the first time since the 2018-19 season, the Pistons are off to an encouraging start to their season. That year, they started 4-0 and finished with their last playoff appearance.

Friday’s road opener against the New York Knicks begins a three-game road stretch that will provide a challenge for the young team, starting a back-to-back with Saturday’s matchup at Indiana. They played the Knicks in their preseason opener and suffered a lopsided 117-97 loss, mainly due to turnovers, but it was the first time the re-tooled group played together.

The first edition of Mike’s Mailbag looks at rookie Jalen Duren’s role, Cade Cunningham’s post play, the latest on Isaiah Livers’ health, rotation possibilities and more.

Question: Do you think it’s a possibility we see Duren move to a starting role at all this season? — @AllDayPistons

Answer: I think it’s possible. It’s a long season, and we’ve already seen some fluidity within Detroit’s starting lineup, especially in the frontcourt. It appears as if the team’s starting staples are Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and Saddiq Bey. Bojan Bogdanovic could remain a starter at power forward, especially after his 24-point debut against the Magic. But that could change, depending on matchups, if coach Dwane Casey decides he wants to go with a bigger lineup.

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Duren right now. He’s the youngest player in the league — he doesn’t turn 19 until November 18 — but he’s physically built like a veteran. He’s already one of the best rebounders on the team, he’s an active lob threat, he can protect the interior and he’s a walking SportsCenter highlight. There were two poster dunks against the Magic to prove that.

But there are more than a few things the 6-foot-10 center needs to adjust to before he earns a starting role. He showed significant improvement on Wednesday by not committing a foul, something he struggled with in the preseason. If he can avoid foul trouble, the Pistons may be able to utilize his talents more.

Duren is still learning how to utilize his offensive talents. We’ve seen him use jump hooks, but we’ve also seen him take a few mid-range shots. He has the ability to make those shots, as I’ve seen in practice, but it may take a while before he has the go-ahead to take those shots in an actual game.

The best thing Duren can do for himself is to take advantage of the increased role he currently has while Marvin Bagley recovers from a sprained MCL. Nerlens Noel was available on Wednesday, so it could be a matter of time before he takes up some of those minutes too.

Q: It’s clear Duren should see the floor regularly along with Bojan and Stewart. Where does Marvin Bagley fit into this rotation when he returns? — @sean_corp

A: Bagley suffered a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his right knee less than a minute into the Pistons’ preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His current timetable to return sits at three-to-four weeks, which aligns with a two-game road trip to Boston and New York from Nov. 9-11. Bagley was a starter alongside Isaiah Stewart.

Even if Duren maintains his impressive level of play, Bagley provides a skillset that differentiates himself from the other Pistons bigs. The former No. 2 overall pick has a knack for scoring inside the paint and despite playing just 18 games with the team last season, Bagley proved to be a complementary piece in the pick-and-roll with Cunningham.

I find it hard to believe that Bagley’s role will decrease once he’s healthy. Bagley, a 6-foot-11 forward, is the Pistons’ second-highest-paid player on the roster. He signed a contract extension worth $37.5 million during the offseason. Anyone who’s making that kind of money needs to play in order for the franchise to see a return on its investment.

Q: Any information on (Isaiah) Livers’ health? I feel like we’ve gotten very little on the origin of the problem and how long he may be out. — @PistonOfTheDay

A: Isaiah Livers hasn’t played with the Pistons since an Oct. 7 preseason loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, due to a nagging right hip injury, one we don’t know the origin of. He practiced Sunday, according to Casey, and he’s been getting shots up during practice and pregame, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s ready to play just yet. Livers was listed as out for the Knicks game, the first game, and his status for Saturday against Indiana is unclear.

The Pistons have erred on the side of caution throughout training camp with players dealing with injuries. They kept Hamidou Diallo out for all four preseason games while he battled a left quad injury. Nerlens Noel, who had plantar fasciitis, went two weeks without participating in a full practice until the day before the season opener.

Livers missed most of last season while rehabbing a foot injury. It was expected that he would be ready for the season opener, but I think the training staff wants to be as careful as possible to give the former Michigan forward as much time as he needs to get back to 100% before he takes the floor again.

Q: Do we see Cade (Cunningham) try to work the post like the preseason Knicks game, or will he change his approach? — @EyesDetroit

A: Cunningham spent a good chunk of time posting up Brunson during the Pistons’ preseason opener. It was an encouraging sign to see the 6-foot-6 second-year guard look to impose his newfound muscle gain on a smaller guard — Brunson is 6-1 — to get an easy basket.

We haven’t seen much of that strategy since, but I’d be curious to see if Cunningham looks to reassert himself down low again. When he posts up and makes his way to the basket, it opens up opportunities for his teammates. He’s already found some success when he drives to the paint and draws to defenders, most notably when he swung the ball to Isaiah Stewart for the game-clinching 3-pointer to stave off the Magic.

Q: Killian’s defense and passing have been really good as usual, but his shooting form seems all over the place since the summer. Has he or the coaching staff talked about this at all? @jamelbrinkley

A: During the offseason, Hayes worked with Pistons assistant coach Jerome Allen and senior advisor/player development coach John Beilein on the mechanics of his jump shot. Before the adjustments, Hayes gathered and launched his shot directly in front of his face. Now, his release is closer to the left side of his shoulder, but his elbow is tucked. Casey said it’s not uncommon to see players tweak their jump shots, especially early in their careers. Hayes acknowledged the change during training camp, but maintains the stance that he needs to be confident in order to gain some consistency with his 3-point shooting.

Q: Who (on the Knicks) should the Pistons be most concerned with stopping? — @jerryferrara

A: The Pistons have had their fair share of defensive struggles throughout the preseason, especially with guards. In the preseason meeting against the Knicks, RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson, who signed a four-year $104 million contract, carried the scoring load. Barrett had a team-high 21 points and five rebounds, while Brunson added 16 points and five assists.

Quick guards seemingly give the Pistons problems, and Brunson often used his quickness to blow past the defense to get to the basket or pull up for mid-range scores. Barrett did most of his damage in the second half of that game. He knocked down contested 3-pointers and made smart cuts to the basket for easier scoring opportunities.

It’s honestly a toss-up between these two because they both possess the ability to hurt Detroit from the perimeter, but if they run them off the 3-point line, Brunson and Barrett can attack the paint. If you double either, the playmaking kicks in and they’re able to find their teammates for open shots.

Considering the fact that the Pistons allowed Magic guard Jalen Suggs to score 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, the Pistons should key in on Brunson, who’s an even more lethal scoring guard.

mcurtis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeACurtis2

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