Jaden Ivey’s career night highlights his tremendous growth as a rookie

Detroit Bad Boys

As the clock struck zero Monday night, a dejected Jaden Ivey stood underneath his own basket, bent over in frustration as his team fell to potential future NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks. In the aftermath of the loss, the Detroit Pistons’ talented rookie was intent on highlighting both the team and his own attention to detail against the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks.

“It was the little things … the little things killed us. The extra possessions, missed box-outs…against these teams you [have] got to finish plays,” Ivey said.

At no point in a five-minute postgame interview did the 21-year-old gush over his own performance. Based off his demeanor, onlookers would be hard-pressed to find that Ivey had delivered arguably his most impressive performance as a pro.

He poured in a career-high 32 points to go with 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Ivey joins Grant Hill and Cade Cunningham as just the third Piston rookie in history to eclipse such totals.

Ivey might be laser focused on the outcome, but we shouldn’t let that overshadow a brilliant offensive display against the league’s second-best defense. While the little things hurt Detroit down the stretch of the final quarter, the tremendous progress in Jaden Ivey’s game allowed the team to stay within striking distance.

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons

Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

When Detroit announced Cade Cunningham would be undergoing season-ending shin surgery last December, Ivey immediately became the franchise’s central developmental focus in the backcourt.

Playing alongside Cunningham was intended to ease Ivey into life as an NBA ball-handler, allowing the rookie to create off secondary actions. Ivey scored a relatively efficient 15.4 points and dished 3.8 assists (2.2 turnovers) in 11 games with the former first overall selection.

With Cunningham out of the lineup, Detroit lost its most important player, its best playmaker and its supposed offensive engine. Detroit brass quickly pivoted and decided the best move for Ivey’s long-term growth, if not his short-term box score numbers, would be to throw Ivey to the wolves.

Ivey quickly became the developmental focus of the season, and the Pistons turned to the rookie as the team’s lead ball handler and initiator. He also became, for a variety of reasons, perhaps the only player who could create his own shot.

Predictably, Ivey struggled early and often with the increased responsibility. His blistering speed often lead to rushed shots and poor passing decisions. In the first eight games of Cunningham’s absence, Ivey struggled with the added load, shooting 39% from the field and turning the ball over 3.1 times (4.9 assists).

However, since this initial stretch, last summer’s fifth overall selection has figured out how to harness his fiery pace, leveraging his speed to create advantages for himself and teammates in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the most notable progression within Ivey’s attack is his silky pull-up jumpshot. The 17- to 25-foot dribble jumper has become a staple move in Ivey’s pick-and-roll package.

In Monday night’s clash with the Bucks, Ivey drained five impressive jumpers off the bounce, keeping Brook Lopez and Milwaukee’s drop coverage defense honest:

Though Milwaukee welcomes these kind of attempts, Ivey’s improvement as a pull-up shooter makes these relatively efficient shots for the Detroit offense. Once his biggest weakness, Ivey’s pull-up game is one of his more reliable weapons.

Prior to Jan. 1, the Indiana-native was converting only 30.4% (24.6 3P%) off such looks. Since the turn of the calendar year, though, Ivey’s percentages have jumped to 36.1% from distance and 40.9% overall. Putting him ahead the likes of Paolo Banchero (24.3% from 3 and 35.2% overall) and Jabari Smith Jr. (34.5% from 3 and 37.4% overall) in the same span.

Now armed with a viable counter to drop-style coverage, Ivey’s improved shooting capability has opened up driving lanes for the speedster to attack. Adjusted patience and toggling between speeds have allowed his passing ability to flourish.

In the second-half of Monday’s outing, Ivey demonstrated the aforementioned advancements with a pair of assists to his rookie counterpart:

The adjusted pacing upon using the screen and hesitation dribble draw Lopez toward Ivey just enough for him to find an open Duren on each occasion.

Since assuming lead-ball handler duties, Ivey’s assist numbers have increased from 3.8 per game in December to 6.7 in March.

The combination of patience and the game slowing down have also provided Ivey additional avenues to the free throw-line.

11 of his career-best 32 points came by way of free throws against Milwaukee with Ivey attempting a career-high 12 freebies.

On this particular occasion, he did an excellent job lulling his defender with a host of dribble moves before leveraging his lighting quick first step to draw contact and get to the line:

Ivey’s become particularly good at drawing contact when driving left. He’ll often penetrate with a lefty dribble before stopping on a dime and leaning towards the right into the defender. A move his veteran teammate Alec Burks has perfected (and presumably taught the rookie in the practice gym).

Milwaukee Head Coach Mike Budenholzer was complimentary of Ivey’s foul-drawing ways in his post-game press conference. “Credit to Ivey for learning how to get to the free-throw line; there’s an art to it. He’s got great speed and strength to create enough contact and finish.”

Through 10 games in March, Ivey’s averaging his most free throws in a month with 5.8 attempts and converting his highest percentage, knocking down 79% of attempts from the charity stripe.

The developmental arc of Jaden Ivey’s career is still in it’s infancy, but his relentless endeavor to improve is a credit to his character. Whenever the 21-year-old speaks publicly, there’s always a focus on individual and team improvement, in Monday’s postgame he left us with: “This offseason, we’ve got to get everybody together and try to get better this offseason.”

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