24 games to go, 24 thoughts on a season that’s a bridge to the Pistons future

Killian Hayes
The return of Killian Hayes from injury will be one of the biggest developments to come for the Pistons over their final 24 games
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)

We’re at the third trimester of the NBA’s truncated 72-game season – 48 games down, 24 to go for the Pistons. It will be a busy home stretch, too, with those 24 games shoehorned into 44 days.

The Pistons will play 13 of their final 24 at home with the back end of the schedule especially home heavy, including seven of the final eight games at Little Caesars Arena.

Over the season’s first two-thirds, the Pistons have continued their transition to a younger roster and one more suited to the vision of general manager Troy Weaver – a roster stocked with athletic players with length and competitive-rich DNA. Only four players from the roster he inherited began the season with the Pistons in December and three of those four – Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Svi Mykhailiuk – are no longer around.

And that’s a good jumping off point to look at 24 thoughts for the 24 games remaining in the 2020-21 Pistons season:

  1. Sekou Doumbouya is that last man standing from the 2019-20 Pistons, but they’re not really any closer to knowing what his future holds than they were a year ago. He doesn’t have to take the NBA by storm over the next six weeks, but a spark or two from him to carry into a critical off-season would re-establish his status as a building block.

  2. Nobody on the roster was hurt more by the lack of a G League experience than Doumbouya. And that’s especially true if the Motor City Cruise – the Detroit-based expansion team that launches later this year – had been an option this season so Doumbouya could keep one foot in the Pistons locker room and the other in the Cruise’s.

  3. Killian Hayes, the other French import too young to quaff a postgame ale, is due back soon. Given the odds stacked against him, nobody expects Hayes to put up big or efficient numbers. But getting him four or five weeks of games to give him confidence that his injured hip is fully functional and dependable will provide him – and everybody on the Pistons payroll, for that matter – a peace of mind heading into his first NBA off-season, always a big one.

  4. Take a minute to appreciate the enormity of the challenge Hayes faced the past five months. He found out where he’d be playing as a pro in the world’s premier league five weeks before his NBA debut. At 19, he found himself as the quarterback of an NBA team, playing with strangers in a foreign land and a city he’d set foot in for the first time a minute ago. Crazy, the odds stacked against success.

  5. By all accounts, he’s emerged from it the better for it. That’s a credit to the way the organization put its arms around him, of course, but mostly it’s a credit to Hayes’ buoyancy and core character. NBA success never comes without accruing a few scars along the way. This wasn’t exactly the experience Hayes was looking to acquire as a rookie, but it will help forge the requisite inner resolve that all NBA success stories must develop.

  6. Now, as for the however many games Hayes gets to play from here until May 16, those are all important. Every opponent he goes up against, every situation he finds himself in, every half-court set he initiates or defends – those will all be one less “first” for him to encounter next season. It gives him a starter’s catalog of experiences to carry with him into those critical summer sessions with Pistons staffers where they’ll work on the minutiae of a point guard’s repertoire with relevant examples gleaned from these games he sticks under his belt.

  7. Josh Jackson has had stretches in his first season wearing the uniform of his hometown team where he’s looked every bit worthy of the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft. But an injury here, an illness there that caused missed games sidetracked his progress. Then came Game 48 and Jackson’s 31-point outburst in Thursday’s win over Washington. Getting back to that Josh Jackson, a guy who just turned 24, will move him firmly into the core of young players the Pistons regard as their future.

  8. As with a majority of NBA players in this era, the 3-point shot is the swing skill that will define how high Jackson’s ceiling gets. If he stays around 30 percent but remains a transition terror and a first-class attacker, he’s a valuable role player. But if the 3-point shot gets to league average, 35 percent or so, he’s a no-doubt starter-quality player. Thousands of 3-point shots are on Josh Jackson’s summer agenda.

  9. And if Jackson gets there as a 3-point shooter and the Pistons can field lineups next season that feature Jackson, Jerami Grant and Hamidou Diallo at 2-3-4, holy hell! That’s going to be a lineup that will keep the advance scouts up nights trying to recommend a plan of attack against the defense the Pistons can throw at them.

  10. As for Diallo, small sample size warning and all that, but … wow. The debut was so-so but understandable given it was his first game in more than a month and playing with a new team in a foreign system. But that first drive for a layup of game two, getting to the paint with no resistance and then somehow being at the rim with those elastic arms before it seemed possible to get there, wow.

  11. And, again, small sample size, but Diallo’s patience with the ball while he’s probing for an opening has been an eye opener. His assist rate has tripled over last season. It would be delightful if Diallo also took a leap as a 3-point shooter, but what he’s shown the Pistons so far is he could well be a dynamic force even as a low-volume 3-point threat.

  12. Without question, the player who’s added the most value to the Pistons this season is Jerami Grant and we’ve gotten halfway through 24 thoughts before getting to him which, yeah, speaks to how he quickly he’s solidified himself as a known quantity. Reports at the trade deadline that teams were willing to part with multiple first-rounders for him didn’t raise any eyebrows because of course they would.

  13. And it suddenly seems like a long time ago that, ahem, experts were chiding Troy Weaver for the reported three-year, $60 million deal Grant signed last fall. Never mind reports Denver had the same offer on the table – or that the Nuggets just coughed up a ton of assets to acquire a reasonable Grant facsimile to fill his void, trading for Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.

  14. Grant’s productivity has dipped slightly of late for perfectly understandable reasons: The stress load he’s assumed, for one, and the personnel moves the Pistons have made since opening night that widened the talent pool but at the cost of 3-point shooting. That’s meant tight – or non-existent – driving angles for Grant and allowed defenses to gang up on him. Don’t let that make you lose sight of what a revelation he’s been – and what a win his signing was for the Pistons.

  15. Speaking of wins for the Pistons, it’s pretty hard to overstate how impressive the early returns of Troy Weaver’s first draft in the big chair are. Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey surely look like NBA-worthy starters going forward and the history of 16th and 19th picks says you’re lucky to get one such guy there. There’s usually two or three players from every draft taken in the 30s who carve out meaningful NBA careers and it would be hard to imagine Saben Lee not being safely in that category, at minimum.

  16. Seventeen of Stewart’s 24 3-point shots have come in the last nine games. He’s shooting 41 percent from the arc for the season and 47 percent over those nine games. We don’t know for sure that he’s an above-average 3-point shooter yet, but we’ve seen enough to know it’s not a gimmick. Given all the other areas where Stewart has shown he’ll contribute to winning – the tenacity, the rebounding, the switchability for a center, the motor, the agitation skills – a 3-point shot in the toolbox makes him wildly intriguing.

  17. Bey isn’t like most rookies in that he’s already good to really good at almost everything. So what’s on his summer to-do list? Dwane Casey says one area of focus will be working on his driving game. Over the last month or so, we’ve seen flashes of that becoming an effective weapon for him. He’s got a ton of natural strength for a 21-year-old, a great frame and the type of herky-jerky nature to his gait that gives defenders fits. When he weds an off-the-dribble game with his advanced 3-point shooting and footwork, his ceiling as a scorer in tantalizing.

  18. That thing we said about the swing skill of a lot of players being the 3-point shot? It applies in a big way to Lee. His ability to attack the paint isn’t a surprise, but his ability to find shooters once he does so has been – at least to those not named Troy Weaver. Lee’s athleticism and defensive tenacity give him everything he needs to go with that penetration/vision package to be an effective point guard. If the 3-point shot comes along for the ride, watch out.

  19. Dennis Smith Jr. has shown flashes of the promise that made him the No. 9 pick in 2017, but he’s been in and out of the lineup a few times in the past month. He’s more of a luxury than a necessity for the Pistons when Hayes and Lee are clearly part of the future, but he’s got 24 games to make the Pistons think hard about his qualifying offer when the time comes.

  20. Frank Jackson is another one giving the front office something to think about. There are holes in his game but the pluses are there to make him a dynamic bench scorer – and especially if the 3-point improvement over his first two seasons is real. No less an authority than Wayne Ellington has volunteered his amazement at Jackson’s potential as a 3-point shooter. And if Jackson keeps the 3-point average where it’s been – he’s at 43 percent for the season – his athleticism makes his driving ability a more potent threat.

  21. Mason Plumlee has earned every cent and shamed the legion of critics over the contract he signed last fall. Plumlee has been everything Dwane Casey envisioned – and Weaver is on record as saying it was Casey who pounded the table loudest for the pursuit of Plumlee – and he’s universally adored by the young players he’s helped shape. He gives the Pistons 28 minutes a game of utterly reliable, fully committed engagement at both ends and does it while occupying a mere 7.3 percent of the salary cap. Bargain.

  22. Much has been made of Weaver’s eye for talent and, spot on. Much should be made of it. It’s a rare gift. What’s rarer still is not getting swept away by talent and overlooking character flaws. More impressive is Weaver’s ability to find underappreciated talent while refusing to compromise on character. And the veterans the Pistons added – Plumlee, Ellington, Rodney McGruder, Grant, Jahlil Okafor, Delon Wright before being traded, now Cory Joseph – all check that box in a big way.

  23. You might have checked out by then, but Devidas Sirvydis got the last four minutes of Thursday’s rout of Washington, grabbed a contested rebound and made his only shot, a 3-pointer. The Cruise will be a godsend for him next season. The Pistons thought enough of Sirvydis to trade up to get him with the 37th pick and his size – a legit 6-foot-8 – and sweet stroke give him a nice starter kit for an NBA future.

  24. So, 24 games left. The Pistons for the first time acknowledged they were embarking on a season whose success wouldn’t be determined by wins and losses. It was always about developing young players and instilling in them – individually and collectively – the tenets of their organizational vision on everything from offense and defense to the broader issues of teamwork and selflessness and toughness and discipline. That’s what will frame these final 24 games even if there isn’t a playoff pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

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