Killian Hayes won’t technically be a rookie for the NBA’s 2021-22 season, but he’ll be experiencing many things for the first time. That gives him another thing in common with Cade Cunningham. Dwane Casey is getting ready to add to that list.
“I’m not going to put a number on Cade and Killian,” Casey said after Tuesday’s first Pistons Summer League practice, where their two recent lottery picks played side by side. “Both of ’em are 1A and 1B. Either one can bring it up. Either one can initiate offense. Either one can run pick and roll. What we want to work to is position-less basketball.”
One of the things Hayes will get to experience for the first time, along with Cunningham, is Summer League. Hayes and fellow 2020-21 rookies Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee were robbed of anything resembling a conventional off-season program ahead of last season with COVID-19 adjustments pushing the draft back to mid-November, just a few weeks ahead of training camp’s opening.
Then came the hip injury that cost Hayes three months and 41 games. It should have surprised no one that a 19-year-old playing on basketball’s biggest stage an ocean away from home struggled with the adjustment around the extended injury absence, but Casey says Hayes is now reaping the benefits of the hard lessons absorbed as an NBA rookie.
“One thing Killian has an advantage right now, he’s got a year under his belt of getting his butt kicked in the NBA,” Casey said. “His physicality, his speed and the force he’s playing with right now is off the charts. He’s not a finished product, but you can just see it from last year.”
For Cunningham, putting on a Pistons practice jersey and going through something as familiar as an organized practice helped bring home the reality – after the blur of predraft preparation – that he’s found his NBA home.
“It felt good to get back on the court,” Cunningham said five days after being taken No. 1 overall by the Pistons. “My predraft was a little different than others. I wasn’t able to be around teammates and play five on five. To be able to get back out here, it was fun.”
Part of Cunningham’s appeal – beyond the obvious gifts as a 6-foot-8 playmaker who shot 40 percent from the 3-point line as an Oklahoma State freshman – is his makeup and self-awareness. General manager Troy Weaver called him a “human connector” and lauded his basketball IQ and leadership skills. To that point, Cunningham spoke of his conscious effort to not throw off a vibe of entitlement as the No. 1 pick.
“I don’t want to come in forcing anything. I want to get a flow for the team, get a feel for everybody on the team. I know what the number one pick perception is coming in, so the biggest thing for me is come in and reassure the team I’m about winning. I want to blend in, get a good flow on the offense so we can play good basketball and then move forward.”
Part of establishing that flow, Casey expects, will be to make the perimeter roles less rigid and more of a shared responsibility.
“We get in trouble if we say, ‘He’s the point guard; he’s the two.’ Some of it will depend on defensive matchups, some will be offensively,” Casey said. “Not going to put a number on either one of those guys. Both of them have point guard abilities.
“It’s playing basketball. It’s not really anything complicated. That’s one thing I don’t want (Cunningham) to do is overthink. We have certain roles for the one, two and three that are interchangeable and should be, which will make those guys more difficult to guard. He’s comfortable doing anything – whether it’s pick and roll, playing off the ball, defending a two, defending a three. He showed it today.”
And Summer League is the time for them to push their boundaries in addition to starting the familiarization process.
“We want them comfortable, but a little being uncomfortable is good,” Casey said. “I like being uncomfortable right now. It’s the time to be uncomfortable, trying to get those guys in a rhythm of playing together.”
Saddiq Bey – who could well line up as the third perimeter starter with Hayes and Cunningham, in Summer League and in the regular season, which makes this a truly unusual Pistons Summer League – is on board with the game plan.
“I think it’s good. We don’t try to label each other. We know we’re interchangeable in some form or fashion,” he said. “It’s an asset for us, having length, having different people handle the ball, playing off the ball. I think it’s going to be great for us being able to balance and being versatile at times. That’s going to be vital and good for us.”
- Casey said Isaiah Stewart and Isaiah Livers won’t participate in Summer League. Stewart suffered an ankle injury while playing with the USA Basketball Select Team in Las Vegas last month and was in a walking boot as of late last week, though Casey says he’s “close” to ready. Livers, drafted 42nd overall last week, suffered a foot injury in March that ended his Michigan career but is expected to be cleared for training camp.
In addition, 57th overall pick Balsa Koprivica can’t participate until Friday when the NBA moratorium period lifts and last week’s trade with Charlotte can be finalized. Chris Smith, signed to a two-way contract last week, is still rehabilitating from ACL surgery that ended his UCLA season after eight games.
- J.D. DuBois, a player development coach who came to the Pistons with Casey from Toronto three years ago, will serve as Summer League coach, Casey said.