It would be easy to focus on the late turnovers, especially the back-to-back steals midway through the fourth quarter when the Detroit Pistons top draft pick, Killian Hayes, tossed a couple of soft passes to Blake Griffin that got swiped and led to Minnesota layups.
The rookie took it hard and blamed himself after the game for the shift in momentum. That’s a good sign, even though his coach, Dwane Casey, told him not to hang his head.
If you were looking for a shift in direction for the Pistons during their opener Wednesday night in Minneapolis, it wasn’t hard to see, despite a dispiriting, 111-101, loss to the Timberwolves.
Let’s start with Hayes, who until those late turnovers showed more than a few moments of poise, court awareness, ball skill and shotmaking ability. He only scored seven points, but they came in a hurry in the third quarter – a layup, a three-pointer, a runner.
A year or two from now, heck, a couple months from now, Hayes won’t be determined to feed Griffin the ball in such tight windows, and he’ll have a better feel for the skill of the defenders before him. Ricky Rubio got him three times Wednesday, a veteran flummoxing a 19-year-old.
That’ll happen. But then so will Hayes’ development as this season progresses. In the way he carries himself on the court. In his confidence in sussing out unfavorable situations for favorable ones.
Already, you can see his strength, both defensively and with the ball in his hands. Several times, Hayes came around a screen, slowed up, and let the defender climb onto his back before speeding up to create space. That’s a savvy move for a teenager.
That kind of patience and basketball feel is why general manager Troy Weaver wanted him at No. 7. He is a playmaker with size, and a shot that isn’t broken.
Credit Casey for giving him the ball to finish the game midway through the fourth quarter. It’s how rookies learn. Getting pulled for Derrick Rose after the turnovers is how rookies learn, too.
Those decisions will define this season for the Pistons. They are tricky.
Wednesday won’t be the last time Casey has to choose between the development of his youngsters versus the steadier hands of the vets, and the tension between playing for wins against playing for the future will test him.
Weaver wants to be competitive during the rebuild. Or retooling if you prefer. Against the Timberwolves, they were, leading for three-and-a-half quarters before collapsing with turnovers, missed defensive assignments and missed shots.
Casey said his locker room felt the gut punch. That’s a good sign.
So was the play of Josh Jackson, who arrived in Detroit as a reclamation project after fizzling out in Phoenix as the No. 4 pick in 2017. Jackson is a Detroiter, a former prep star at Consortium College Prep before transferring to the west coast.
At Kansas, where he played a year of college ball, he showed a talent for ball hawking defensively and attacking the rim. His shot was uneven.
It has been that way in the NBA, too. Though something clicked this offseason. He shot 50% in preseason and made 3 of 7 3-pointers Wednesday. He finished with a team-high 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting off the bench in 29 minutes.
“I call myself the jack of all trades,” he said. “I’m not great at one thing, but I’m good at a lot of things.”
At the least, he showed he might have found himself in his old home, giving the Pistons a nice rotation piece moving forward. As for the rest of the youngsters?
Sekou Doumbouya, the second-year forward, played with more aggression than he often did a year ago. Like Jackson, he doesn’t have one standout skill. But he has size and respectable athleticism, and if he crashes the board and attacks the rim and defends, he’ll stay on the floor more consistently.
The other two first-round draft picks – center Isaiah Stewart and forward Saddiq Bey – didn’t see the court, which gets back to the decisions Casey will face this season as he tries to build a culture, win – at least some – and develop the youngsters.
Weaver calls Hayes, Stewart, Bey and two-way guard Saben Lee his “core four,” and at some point, they will get their chance. The sooner the better, because the front office knows what Griffin and Rose and Mason Plumlee can do.
Speaking of Plumlee, he was the team’s best big all night. Setting textbook screens, reading the defense on the roll, and slipping passes to cutters. One exchange with Hayes in the second half illustrated why Weaver wanted Plumlee for the rebuilding effort.
He took the ball near the top of the key, held it for a second, and waited for Hayes to backdoor his defender before threading a bounce pass in stride for a lefty layup. That shot helped settle Hayes and led to his next two buckets.
Plumlee does almost everything right and helped organize the Pistons at times. That should be invaluable as the young guys progress.
Giving them time should be the priority, though Weaver and Casey have to showcase Griffin and Rose, too, for possible trades. It’s a balance. Just as it’s a balance to find ways for Jerami Grant to expand his game.
The biggest offseason signing – Grant signed a surprising three-year, $60 million deal – played solidly, other than a couple cringey 3-point attempts in the first half; he is best shooting from distance when he’s set, not off the bounce.
Grant was the third wheel in Denver, behind two stars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and wanted a bigger hand in the offense, which is why he left a title contender for a rebuild. Though it wasn’t about stats and shots, per se. It was about finding out how good he could be.
He will get that chance this season.
The question is: How many others will?
The answer will tell us plenty about what kind of rebuild we’re watching this winter.
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