Pistons Mailbag - March 3, 2021

Lots of talk about point guards in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag – Killian Hayes’ return, Saben Lee’s future, Delon Wright’s trade value.

Jordan (@JC29i): Any recent updates on Jahlil Okafor and Killian Hayes?

Langlois: Dwane Casey said over the weekend that Okafor is doing some light shooting work, so he’s probably on schedule for the original timetable of six to eight weeks from Feb. 10 – a late March or early April return. Hayes could be in the same ballpark. It was on Jan. 20 that the Pistons said he would be on a rest and rehabilitation protocol for eight weeks and be re-evaluated at that time. We’re two weeks from the eight-week window there. Given the length of his layoff and the likelihood the Pistons will be cautious with a 19-year-old coming off a fairly unusual injury, I wouldn’t expect that he’ll be cleared to return one day and be thrown back into practice the next. It’s more like we’re a few weeks away from an update that will start the clock ticking on his return. I think the most important thing for Hayes will be to be able to get his feet wet in whatever amount of time he has left before the May 16 finale is played so he can go into his off-season trusting that he’s healthy and ready to put in a critical summer’s worth of work to be ready to go for his second season – essentially, a rookie season re-do.

Nick Lake (@LakeshoreNick): If Josh Jackson is the Pistons second-best offensive player, wouldn’t it be better to have him start than come off of the bench? Working with Jerami Grant in the starting unit, the two of them could split the defense’s attention and make scoring easier for both.

Langlois: Except since Derrick Rose’s trade, Jackson’s scoring is now critical to the viability of the newly constituted second unit. They’re going to play overlapping minutes – Jackson usually comes in midway through the first quarter and plays the rest of it with Grant, typically – but I think the Pistons are best served as currently constituted having Jackson anchor the second unit.

Preston (@pmills_55): What do you think Trader Troy can get for Delon Wright?

Langlois: Great question, uncertain answer. Let’s set aside the pros and cons of dealing Wright – we’ll get to that in the next question – and focus on the value. The commonly held view is that the Pistons veteran most likely to fetch an asset in return at the trade deadline is Wayne Ellington. The logic behind that is solid. Ellington has an elite skill – he’s shooting 41.4 percent from the 3-point line on 9.6 attempts per-36 minutes, so high volume – and a minimum contract. Those are two persuasive features of a readily movable player. Ellington’s trade appeal is based in part on the fact that he’d be an easy fit for any franchise, basically. Everybody wants more shooting and anybody can accommodate a minimum deal. Wright’s another matter. He is much more of a jack-of-all-trades player – good size, good at both ends and versatile at both ends – who isn’t outstanding, necessarily, at any one thing. He doesn’t have a veteran’s minimum contract, so even though it’s not an onerous one by any means – $9 million this season, $8.5 for 2021-22 – it would still require other teams with tax concerns to figure out how to shed a similar salary without doing more harm than good to the roster by acquiring Wright. That’s a long way of saying it all depends on who needs a player like Wright and how much they’re willing to part with to get him. I don’t think the Pistons feel any urgency to move Wright, but it’s a general manager’s job to have an understanding of what every player’s market value is. There’s a point where every player becomes available if the return dictates as much. Is a late first-round pick a tipping point on Wright? Is it a young player and a second-round pick – the return for Reggie Bullock two years ago even though Bullock was on an expiring contract whereas the acquiring team would get two postseasons from Wright? There’s no right answer. Wright’s value is whatever a trade partner feels he’s worth to them. One thing that could depress the market for him, though, is that contenders – the teams most motivated to make deadline deals – are usually on the hunt for one or two specialists their current roster lacks, which again circles us back to Ellington. A long-term injury absence could change the equation and create a need for a player more like Wright.

Brad Rosen (@BradARosen): Given how well Dennis Smith Jr. and Saben Lee are playing and assuming Hayes can come back, it seems silly to have Delon Wright on the roster. Do you think they will try to move him for a second-rounder by the trade deadline to gather assets and free playing time for the young guys?

Langlois: I’m sure Dwane Casey would object, strenuously, to the notion that it’s silly to have Wright around – and especially now with Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin no longer part of the equation. Casey refers to Wright as a security blanket, someone he trusts to carry out assignments and set things right so there’s a sense of order at both ends. Wright, Mason Plumlee, Rodney McGruder and Wayne Ellington are pretty much it for a veteran core other than Jerami Grant, who turns 27 next week. As much as the Pistons love the makeup of their kids, it would be reckless to start casting aside everyone over 25 just to pick up another second-round pick or two. It’s uncertain how the Pistons view Smith. They can keep him for next season by extending a qualifying offer to him in the off-season for $7.7 million. They’ve got the rest of the season to figure out if that’s a good use of their money or not, so you could argue they need the minutes for Smith to make that determination and use that as justification to take Wright out of the picture. But if by season’s end they decide to not extend the QO for Smith, then they’d want Wright – or someone just like him – around for the same reasons they wanted him this season when they had Hayes and Derrick Rose at point guard. I don’t think the Pistons are going to go into 2021-22 with Hayes and Saben Lee as their point guards without a solid veteran option to go along with them. Is it possible Hayes comes back for the final month or so of the season and establishes himself as the starter and Lee uses the final 38 games to cement his status in the rotation? Sure. The Pistons still need a third point guard. Maybe that’s Smith. Wright’s ability to play either backcourt spot makes him a nice fit even in that very best-case scenario. His contract is reasonable. And if a year from now Hayes and Lee have shown they can carry the torch, Wright on an expiring contract would figure to have some trade value. As I wrote in response to the previous question, there’s a tipping point in every trade equation. So I’m not suggesting Wright is off limits. But I don’t think the Pistons feel any urgency to trade Wright at this point. He has value to them, so it would have to be a legitimate offer in return – not just a way to create playing time for others.

Z (@ZaktheMonster): How long before Saben Lee takes over the starting job from Dennis Smith Jr.?

Langlois: That depends entirely on Lee and Smith. It would be quite a leap to go from No. 38 overall pick and playing on a two-way contract to NBA starting point guard, but I don’t think the Pistons would hesitate to make that move if they truly thought it would benefit the team and not do anything to impede Lee’s progress. But making him the starter means playing him against the NBA’s best point guards, too. It’s a little easier to break in a rookie when he’s coming off the bench and you can manipulate the minutes so he’s paired most often against the other team’s backup point guard. Lee’s played 195 total NBA minutes. The cart might be getting ahead of the horse if we’re going to determine he’s a starter at this point.

Ahmed (San Antonio): Why did the NBA only release half of the schedule in December and the second half of the schedule just last week? Why didn’t they release the entire schedule at once as usual?

Langlois: It was an acknowledgment of the times – specifically, of the expectation that some games would face postponement as teams encountered positive (or inconclusive) COVID-19 test results. The Pistons had four games postponed in the first half of the season – two because of other teams experiencing positive test results, one because of an inconclusive test result (later found negative) within their own team and a fourth because of the Texas winter storm and a fifth, Tuesday’s scheduled game in Tampa against Toronto, moved to tonight. It’s going to be a challenge to get all 30 teams to 72 games given the tighter window for the second half. The Pistons are scheduled to play 36 games in 67 days after playing 36 – assuming Thursday’s game at New York is played as scheduled to complete the first half – in 71 days over the first half. The Pistons have eight back to backs scheduled for the second half, so finding open dates will be tricky if more postponements occur.

Craig (Phnom Penh, Cambodia): I love what I see from the three active rookies (Saben Lee, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart), but can you give me reason why I should feel better about Stewart than Jerome Williams of Pistons past? Another “effort” player. I want to believe in his future.

Langlois: Williams had a pretty solid NBA career – nine years – for the 26th pick. He played in 587 games, 275 of them over his first five years in the NBA with the Pistons after finishing his college career at Georgetown. But Williams was 23 when he made his NBA debut and Stewart is 19. Stewart will have four full seasons in the NBA by the time he turns 23. He’s got the tools to be a more diverse offensive player than Williams, whose calling card was hustle plays and offensive rebounds, was and his body type is a little different. If Stewart develops a perimeter shot – and watching him shoot before and after games, it’s not hard to believe it’s coming – he’s going to be more than just a guy who plays with a high motor, not that there isn’t a place for those players.

Motor City Hoops (@MotorCityHoops): What current members of the Pistons will still be Pistons to start the 2023-24 season?

Langlois: The easy answer is Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee. The Pistons have the first three on rookie contracts that will have them under team control through 2024-25 if they so choose. Lee, as a second-round pick, will be a restricted free agent at some point before then, probably, but there is no reason to expect the Pistons won’t retain him through that process. The next most likely player would be Sekou Doumbouya. Jerami Grant signed a three-year contract, so he’s due to be a free agent after the 2022-23 season. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension after the 2021-22 season. Given Grant’s career arc and the fact he’ll still be only 29 at that point, it would not be a surprise if both sides engage on extension talks at that point.