Detroit Pistons NBA Summer League takeaways: Ausar Thompson is ready for the spotlight

Detroit Free Press

Another NBA Summer League has come and gone for the Detroit Pistons, who went 4-1 after finishing up their five-game stint Sunday in Las Vegas with a 100-85 win over the Indiana Pacers.

We saw some good play from their 2023 draft class, Ausar Thompson and Marcus Sasser, as well as from some of their veteran returnees: Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey and James Wiseman.

Players will now disperse to work on their individual games and scrimmage in open gym runs, before the Pistons regroup in late September for training camp.

Here’s what we learned in Las Vegas.

Thompson is ready

Thompson was responsible for two of the most exciting plays of the week, both dunks — a steal and reverse alley-oop assisted by Sasser, and a one-handed putback off a standing jump on the back of San Antonio Spurs 6-foot-9 forward Dominick Barlow, who incorrectly assumed he had boxed the 6-6 rookie out.

Both plays elicited wows from the crowds at Thomas & Mack Center as well as his own teammates. Thompson is a special athlete, the type that can win dunk contests and become a regular fixture on highlight reels. He doesn’t just jump — he seemingly floats.

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But his athleticism extends beyond his leaping ability. Thompson is very quick, exceptionally coordinated and has an unrelenting motor and strong nose for the ball. He sees the floor like a lead guard and is unselfish. His high-feel approach led to him putting together one of the best two-way summer performances in recent memory for a Piston, and generated more hype for his upcoming rookie season after he was selected fifth overall in June.

In four games — he sat out Sunday’s finale — Thompson averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 blocks and 2.3 steals while shooting 46.5%. He’s a stat-sheet stuffer and has been a menace defensively. His active hands helped him tally 16 combined blocks and steals. He battles through screens, makes quick closeouts and has a knack for deflecting jump shots at the point of release.

On offense, Thompson is a connector and especially thrives in transition. He often pushed the ball and delivered accurate passes from behind the half-court line. Both a fastbreak starter and finisher, he also was a lob target and was adept at getting to the line with 17 total free throw attempts. An active rebounder, Thompson came up with second-and-third chance points. Only Wiseman averaged more rebounds per game for the Pistons.

There were half-court flashes as well — Thompson hit two of five 3-point attempts against the Spurs on Friday, knocked down some midrange shots and found teammates as an on-ball creator with Ivey sitting out after the first two games.

“Those winning plays, 50-50 balls, trench rebounds, cutting, pushing the basketball, making the extra pass, sacrificing himself in some instances to cut so someone can get the extra pass on the backside, that’s something you can’t teach,” said Jarrett Jack, a Pistons assistant and their Summer League head coach. “That’s something that we want to be a part of and something that he is. I’m excited for his growth.”

“Winning” was a common descriptor for Thompson’s play style from his coach and teammates. He prioritizes making the right play above all else. With Duren and Ivey on the floor during the first two games, he embraced an auxiliary role and filled in gaps as a defender, rebounder, screener and playmaker. In a leading role during the next two games, he took a step forward as a scorer, and showed off his developing outside jumper and handle.

There were warts, too. Thompson shot 3-for-11 from 3 (27.3%) and 11-for-17 at the foul line (64.7%). His jumper was a weakness with Overtime Elite, and he must prove he can make outside shots consistently in the NBA. He was also turnover-prone, coughing the ball up 11 times. Some of those were on his teammates, to be fair. But he passed every other test, and could be a significant part of the rotation from Day 1, thanks to every other aspect of his game.

Shots didn’t fall, but Sasser can defend

Sasser made four of 25 3-point attempts through his first four games in Vegas, including a 0-for-7 outing Friday. For a player advertised as an elite shooter following a four-year career at Houston, it wasn’t the performance you’d expect.

He made up for it — and then some — during his virtuosic 40-point, five-assist, zero-turnover finale on Sunday. Sasser caught fire in the second half, scoring 33 points on 13-of-14 shooting down the stretch. On the night, he hit five of his nine 3-point attempts. He showed off the full range of his offensive bag, using his handle to both break down defenders on his way to the rim, and create space on the perimeter before knocking down 3-pointers. The Pacers couldn’t stop him.

We knew Sasser could shoot. The 6-foot-1 guard knocked down 36.9% of his college 3-point attempts, including 38.4% as a senior. He hit them off of the catch and could also create his own looks, via pull-ups or stepbacks. One bad week in Vegas wasn’t enough to raise significant doubt about his shot translating, and he should have an easier time playing off Cade Cunningham while surrounded by NBA talent.

The 3-pointers Sasser did hit were reminiscent of the 3s he routinely hit in college. His first two makes of the week were both in the opener against the Orlando Magic, and showed off his slick handle and range that helped propel him toward the top of the Pistons’ draft board.

Sasser was also clutch during a comeback win against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, coming up with a floater, steal and layup in the final 70 seconds as the Pistons erased a 17-point deficit. He shot just 5-for-15 overall (and 1-for-8 from 3) for the game, but his late shot-making and game-high seven assists were instrumental in the victory.

And even though his shot didn’t fall early on, Sasser was a pest on defense. He did a great job navigating screens and staying glued to his man. Though he’s undersized for a point guard standing 6-2, his 6-7 wingspan enabled him to match up against bigger guards, such as 6-7 Orlando guard Anthony Black.

Sasser will have to continue hitting shots to stand out in Detroit’s crowded backcourt, but he showcased his potential as a two-way guard in Vegas.

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Wiseman as advertised, but has another level to get to

Wiseman brought what we expected he would bring to Vegas. He was one of the go-to scorers in the two games he played, and averaged 16.5 points, a team-high 10.5 rebounds and a block on 48.1% shooting. Most of his points were scored by posting up, similar to his 24-game stint in Detroit to finish last season. But he did sink a 3-pointer.

The 22-year-old was productive, but didn’t show the defensive growth one would hope to see. There were moments, and his size and length alone can deter opposing players. But he found himself out of position too frequently and was late recognizing opposing actions. He doesn’t impose his will on that end. In Vegas, you want to see a player with multiple years of NBA experience dominate. Defensively, he merely had flashes.

The Pistons need another difference-maker on defense in their frontcourt. Isaiah Stewart, who last week signed a four-year, $64 million extension, is the lone big who is a proven plus defender. Wiseman, along with Duren, has all of the tools you’d want from a dominant rim protector. One or both will need to make a significant leap in that area for the Pistons to have 48 minutes of good rim protection next season.

Listen to “The Pistons Pulse” with new episodes each week, wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

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