Detroit Pistons Player Grades: Pistons’ young core showed flashes but mostly didn’t measure up

Detroit Bad Boys

The best thing about this just-concluded season of Detroit Pistons basketball is that it seemed to get so bad that it forced change. There was no clinging to some long-term vision that hadn’t yet come to fruition, there was no scapegoating bad injury luck, and it got so bad that it doesn’t appear that even a No. 1 overall pick and $60 million in upcoming cap space is going to save Troy Weaver’s job.

The season was a failure of ownership, leadership, and coaching. Tom Gores, Weaver, and Monty Williams all get Fs for this fiasco. But we care less about the empty suits and blank clipboards and more about the players. Those players might be innocent bystanders, but they are not blameless for this season. Several of these players disappointed this year, and while a big share of that is on the coaching and how they have been set up to fail, you can’t sugarcoat how disappointing this year was for several members of the Detroit Pistons.

Today, we are grading the team’s core players, and in a future post, we will grade the 25-player refuse pile known as the Pistons’ bench and former players.

Cade Cunningham

Cunningham was the biggest bright spot for the Pistons this season because he played mostly a healthy season after losing almost all of his sophomore campaign and because he answered the most essential questions. Cade is no Victor Wembanyama, but he was a worthy No. 1 overall pick. There were some ebbs and flows regarding consistency, but he showed enough as a scorer at all three levels where you can feel confident he’s going to be a potent scorer in the paint, deadly from the midrange, and hovering around 38-40% from deep like you need your best players to do in today’s NBA. After a rash of heinously ugly turnovers early in the season he tamped that down to an acceptable level, especially considering the lack of space he was playing with. He also made me, a sizeable Cade skeptic in this regard, much more comfortable with the idea of Cunningham playing point guard going forward. You want the ball in his hands. He knows how to play his guys open, he knows how to score, and he will only get better at both eliminating the mistakes and capitalizing on the opportunities. He also showed he is at least interested in getting better as a defender, though he still has a long way to go. Grade: B-

Detroit Pistons v Memphis Grizzlies

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Jaden Ivey

One player who proved he is not a point guard is Jaden Ivey. Putting the ball in his hands was always an adventure. You didn’t know whether you would get the explosive guard attacking the rim or a no-look pass into the first row. Simply put, Monty Williams did Ivey no favors by playing him off the bench and minimizing his offensive role. But Ivey also did not take advantage of the opportunities presented to him. As the injuries started to pile up and Ivey had the chance to showcase his skills and growth, he seemed to shrink inside of himself. He also remains an extremely poor defender, and the outside shot is nowhere near consistent enough. A two-guard with close to a 1:1 A:TO ratio, a poor outside shot, and bad defense just MIGHT not be the guy you want to slot next to Cunningham long-term.

I’m not entirely ready to give up on Ivey. He did sincerely improve as a rim attacker and you could see the growth in using his burst and speed to varying levels to get where he wanted on the floor. But Ivey’s name will crop up in many offseason trade rumors, and the two people you can likely thank for that are Williams and Ivey. Grade: D

Jalen Duren

There is so much to like about Duren’s game as one of the league’s youngest players. He is a great, physical rebounder and elite inside scorer who doesn’t need a lot of touches to be effective. He is a supreme athlete and has intuitive skills as a passer, which is what you need out of a big if he can’t shoot the 3-ball. He is already nearly an 80% free-throw shooter, which means you can trust him to score when he draws fouls, and it might portend the eventual development of a jump shot down the line. If you could take all those positives and protect them in amber and then get rid of literally everything else, you’d be golden. Alas, with the good comes the bad. Dear reader, the bad is extremely bad. Duren played awful defense in his second year. He had awareness issues, got pushed around, and too often was the last guy down the floor. Also, while he has some good passing instincts, he seemed to get some devil’s bargain green light after the trade deadline that saw him “run” some offense, and the sloppy handle and careless turnovers were migraine-inducing. Some of his best games statistically were also some of his worst because there would be 5-10 times per contest where you’d scream at your TV: “Why would you do that?!?!?”

Assuming you don’t run your offense through them, big men in the NBA are only worth investing in insofar as they can carry you on the defensive end. If you can’t be a lockdown defender, I can’t see making the case you deserve a big second contract. Duren still has a few seasons to prove himself, but year 2 was a step back. Grade: D-

Miami Heat v Detroit Pistons

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Isaiah Stewart

Isaiah Stewart proved to be an invaluable rotational big man who excels on defense and can hit an open perimeter shot. He also proved to be a borderline atrocious starting power forward in the NBA. I don’t know whether that means Stewart should be a starting center or a flexible reserve big man, but I think we can put a bow on the whole “starting 4-man” thing and move on with our lives. Stewart shot 38% from three on a hair under 4 attempts per game and compiled a 60% true shooting percentage, all good things for a perimeter-oriented big man. The problem is, there is a lot more to being a starting power forward in the NBA than simply shooting, and Stewart couldn’t do any of it. He couldn’t shoot off the movement; he couldn’t create for himself or others, and you never really wanted to see him dribble the ball more than twice or bad things were about to happen. He had trouble working off screens set by others, and he struggled to get in position as either a roll or pop big man after setting the screen himself. He was also, it should be noted, the team’s most consistent defender on the season. That counts for something. Grade: C-

Ausar Thompson

Ausar Thompson is the exact kind of player you want when you have four other capable offensive players on the floor with him. The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near close to that, and that will mean the long-term future of Thompson will inspire a little bit of flop sweat. He showed me enough even within the first two weeks of the season for me to say, “You’ve got Cade, you’ve got Thompson. Figure out what you need to do to build around them as part of your future.”

That could mean a shooter at center and an elite shooter on the wing. Those would not be how I describe Duren or Ivey. Again, flop sweat. Thompson stepped onto the floor, and by the second quarter of game No. 1, he was the team’s second-best defender behind Stewart. He could be one of the best, most versatile defenders in the NBA with a little more seasoning. He’s the exact type of defensive wing you want to be an elite team. Unfortunately, he also is one of the least effective shooters in the NBA. The fact that Thompson compiled a true shooting percentage of 52% while having the most busted jumper in the NBA is actually impressive. He can work because he is an elite cutter and finisher. He is also strong as hell despite going up against much bigger players often. The goal is for him to become the next Herbert Jones, who went from 33% in his first two years to 41% from deep in year 3. Thompson is starting all the way back at 18% from 3. He is a better facilitator than Jones, so he doesn’t necessarily have to become a 40% guy from deep. But he needs to be around that 33-35% mark, and he probably needs to play much more power forward. There were tons of positives to take in Year 1, but Year 2 will be big for him. Grade: C.

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks

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Marcus Sasser

Marcus Sasser proved he was elite at one thing — finding open looks for Marcus Sasser. The 6-foot-2 guard out of Houston wasn’t drafted 25th overall to be the team’s point guard, and he spent all season proving that right. He also showed that he can be an extremely dangerous scorer at the NBA level. He could stay in the NBA based on league-average defense and the danger of his floater alone. He combines that with a thirst for lightning-quick stepback 3s and is always looking to find creative ways of separating himself from his defender. He shot 37.5% from deep as a rookie, and I think it’s safe to say he spent a sizeable portion of the season navigating the rookie wall. I’d expect the shot to be even more consistent next year. The problem is, as a ball handler, Sasser showed he has the vision and instinct to make approximately one read. If there wasn’t a simple dish to a teammate based on a defensive miscue caused by Sasser’s aggressiveness, he wasn’t making the pass. Also, his pesky defense never really materialized at the NBA level. Grade: C-

Simone Fontecchio

I’m including Simone Fontecchio to this crew because it’s so blindingly clear the team should make Fontecchio a four-year offer this season and try to build something legitimate with him as a valuable depth piece. Luckily, the team seems to agree and that is why they traded for the pending free agent who is about to enter his age-29 season.

Fontecchio was such a breath of fresh air on both ends of the floor that his arrival served as an even further indictment to how the team was constructed this offseason. He is a capable wing defender, though he works best at small forward, and can contest a little, rebound a little, and dribble and drive if that is what is called for. he can also shoot lights out, and connected on 42% of his six attempts per game in his 16-game audition with the Pistons. Pencil him into a $14 million per year payday and enjoy his company for the next four seasons. For Cade’s sake and for my sanity. Because he was never asked to do more than he was capable (not common among young Pistons players), I’m sure this is a bit of grade inflation, but I was just so thankful to actually this kind of player in Detroit, I don’t care. Grade: B

You might have noticed a surprising lack of Fs for this failure of a team. That is because we haven’t touched on the 24 other players who suited up for the Pistons at some point this season. The Fs will come in due course. In the meantime, what do you think about the grades of the team’s core seven players? Too harsh? Too lenient? Will they be around next season and have a chance to see their grade improve?

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