This is Part 5 of the Free Press’ “Five most important players” series, in which we take a look at the x-factors for the six major beats. Check out Part 1 on the Detroit Lions, Part 2 on the Detroit Tigers, Part 3 on the Michigan football team, and Part 4 on the Michigan basketball team.
For a squad that won just 17 games last year, the Detroit Pistons have a lot of guys who have a case as one of the team’s most important players.
Franchise cornerstone and No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham was injured early in the season and barely played. The Pistons finished with the worst record in the league, and suffered terrible luck in the NBA draft lottery, dropping four slots to the No. 5 pick and missing out on Victor Wembanyama.
But that’s all in the past now. The Pistons landed Ausar Thompson with the No. 5 pick, added sharpshooter Joe Harris through a trade with the Brooklyn Nets, and made some other moves around the edges that should make them a more competitive team this upcoming season.
In order to make that jump, they’ll need a lot of their returning players to step up as well.
No. 5: Ausar Thompson
It been fun to watch Thompson in the Summer League.
In the Pistons’ third game of the Summer League on Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors, Thompson was guarding first-round pick Gradey Dick as he dribbled through a screen. Thompson fought through, ripped the ball away from Dick, passed it up court to Marcus Sasser and got it right back for a sweet reverse ally oop.
He’s also made some really nice passes and has shown he is already an elite transition player, grabbing rebounds and taking it coast-to-coast.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Thompson. And he won’t be asked to fill a big role next season.
But the Pistons are hoping this is the highest pick they’ll have for a while. This rookie might be their best and last chance at finding a blue-chip talent.
No. 4: Isaiah Stewart
It’s easy to see how much the Pistons love Stewart after they announced a four-year, $64 million extension with him earlier this week.
The big man was drafted with the No. 16 pick in the 2020 NBA draft and has gotten better every year, most notably by adding a 3-point jump shot to his arsenal. In his first two years, he never took more than one 3-point attempt per game. Last year, he shot 4.1 per game, hitting 32.7%. That’s not elite, but Stewart was playing through injury for much of last year and was playing a new position for the first time.
Stewart’s ability to play power forward definitely raises his ceiling. But there are two reasons the Pistons really love him: his defense and leadership.
He averaged 0.4 steals per game and 0.7 blocks in 2022-23, low numbers for a center. But Stewart shines defensively because he’s a jack of all trades. At 6 feet 8, he’s able to guard virtually all five positions on a switch. Few people his size can move their feet like he can.
Stewart is also the emotional leader of this young Pistons team. His work ethic and determination to add a consistent jump shot serves as a great example for his younger teammates.
And remember the time he tried to fight the entire Lakers team even as coaches and trainers held him back? It’s probably not a moment that he’s super proud of, but it was a lesson to other teams across the league; don’t mess with Beef Stew or the Pistons.
The Pistons have committed to Stewart now. They need him to show he can take that next step.
No. 3: Jalen Duren
The Pistons certainly should be better than they were last year, but that’s not a high bar. The 2023-24 Pistons need to find out what they have with their young guys, and Duren is right at the top of that list.
With a full season under his belt, Duren won’t turn 20 until November. But he already has grown man strength.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF: In Summer League, Jalen Duren shows offseason work clicking with Detroit Pistons
Duren still has some room to grow on offense. He doesn’t really have a great go-to move and didn’t display a jump shot last year, however, he drained a corner 3-pointer in the first game of Summer League this year. That certainly doesn’t mean that you should expect Duren to be firing 3s next season, but even if he can become a mid-range threat, that would be huge for the Pistons. Considering the big men they have on their roster (Marvin Bagley III, James Wiseman, Stewart), any floor spacing he can show will be a bonus.
Duren won’t reach his ceiling next year, but it’ll be very interesting to see how much better he can get.
No. 2: Jaden Ivey
Ivey may be the one player Pistons fans should be the most excited about watching.
His trademark quickness allowed him to immediately affect games right when he got to the NBA. He averaged 16.3 points, 5.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds in his rookie year while hitting 34.3% of his 3’s.
Besides his elite quickness, Ivey also has a really nice feel for the game, which should pair nicely with Cunningham in the backcourt.
If the Pistons were a football team, Cunningham would be the team’s quarterback with Ivey being the game-breaking wide receiver with speed to burn. The duo should provide constant mismatches on offense. Cunningham is too big for smaller guards while Ivey is too quick for almost any defender.
Despite his strong rookie season, Ivey decided to participate in Summer League. He wasn’t amazing in the first game, but was the best player on the floor against the Houston Rockets, scoring 22 points with 10 assists.
No. 1: Cade Cunningham
Cunningham made an immediate impact in his first season, showing fans why he was worthy of the top pick in the draft after missing some time early with injuries.
He was particularly impressive towards the end of the 2021-22 season when he showed the ability to score when it mattered most.
But he missed all but 12 games last year with a leg injury that eventually required surgery.
Now entering his third season, Cunningham needs to prove he can be a true leader on the floor. Cunningham has almost a gravitational pull when he’s playing basketball. He knows how to pull defenders just far enough in the right direction and then hits a teammate with a perfect pass or gets to the rim and makes a tough finish.
Cunningham averages 17.8 points per game for his career, but that could really easily get into the 20s if (or when) he figures out the jump shot. Coming into the NBA, Cunningham projected as an elite shooter. While his shot is a little funky looking, he has proven to be a good shooter. He hit 40% of his 3s at Oklahoma State, which is a really nice clip. But so in the NBA, he’s only hitting 30.9% of his 3-pointers on 5.1 attempts per game, a below-average rate for someone who has the ball that much. For example, LeBron James, not known for his outside shooting, has hit 34.5% of his 3’s on 4.6 attempts per game for his career. Cunningham needs to at least get up into that range.
Long story short, the Pistons badly need Cunningham to be on the floor. The third year is often a very important one in an NBA player’s career. It’s the time when big jumps happen. And that’s exactly what the Pistons need from Cunningham.