Attentive vets, eager rookies: Pistons put their future in good hands

Chances are Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee would have found their way in the NBA no matter what had happened on draft night, no matter where fate deposited them. All have their heads screwed on straight. You’d trust them to lock up and get the day’s receipts to the bank without incident. Yeah, chances are they’d have been A-OK no matter the NBA environment that awaited them.

But Troy Weaver – who researched the character and background of the four draft picks he exercised last November every bit as assiduously as he pored over their athletic traits and basketball instincts – wasn’t taking chances.

No, the Pistons general manager and Dwane Casey, too, were determined to bring their rookies – the “Core Four,” as Weaver dubbed them – into the most positive, productive environment they could possibly provide.

So Mason Plumlee was added not only for the screens he sets or his pinpoint post passing but for his history as an exemplary teammate. “Beloved,” Weaver called him when he signed. Wayne Ellington was brought back not exclusively for his deadly 3-point shooting but for his ebullience, grace and insight. “A pro’s pro,” Casey said of Ellington.

And when it came time to turn one of those carefully chosen veterans, Delon Wright, into draft capital, the attached contract that came with it, Cory Joseph, well, Casey knew exactly the impact he would have on the young players central to the Pistons future.

“Tremendous. His style of play, his personality, his leadership, everything rubs off,” Casey said, rattling off the ways in which Joseph contributed to the ascendance of the Toronto Raptors during their time together there. “He’s doing the same thing right now with Killian and Saben. It’s so important that he is who he is and what he brings to the table each and every night.”

The Pistons began the season with a young team and they’ve gotten progressively and significantly younger, the second-youngest roster in the NBA. Finding contenders for their two most decorated players, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, has left Ellington, 33, and Plumlee, 31, as the only 30-something players among the 17 on the roster. Eleven of the 17 are 24 or younger.

There have been times this season the Pistons have fielded a lineup younger than the Baylor team that won the NCAA title earlier this month. And no matter how pure the intent of those young players, it behooves an organization to surround them with veterans who’ll put in place the guardrails to guide their path to NBA success.

And Casey has seen enough along his NBA stops that stretch back nearly three decades to his time on George Karl’s staff in Seattle to know that it doesn’t always work the way it’s unfolded for the Pistons this season. “Some teams,” Casey said, “have guys who eat their own just out of competition for that position.”

But “that’s not in Cory or Wayne or Rodney’s (McGruder) DNA. They’re leaders by example. They’re giving people. They want the young guys to learn,” Casey said after a practice earlier this week. “Cory just told me a few minutes ago, he loves the young players, their approach, their willingness to listen. The education he gives them each and every day – it may be on the bus, it may be in the locker room, it may be in the weight room, but he’s giving them nuggets that will help them make it through the grind.”

The way the young players have responded to not only their guidance but to the ups and downs of an NBA season’s inexorable grind has, in turn, given the veterans a renewed appreciation for their station.

“We have a great group of rookies,” Jahlil Okafor, 25 and in his sixth NBA season, said last week. “Seeing them every day, how serious they are in their approach, I’m really proud of them. It’s a breath of fresh air being around these types of rookies who love the game so much and are so eager to learn. It’s kind of uplifting.”

Joseph says the rookies are all “very unique. They’re all great players. I like how they approach the game. I like how serious they are. Whenever they have a question, I’m here to listen and help.”

Joseph ticked off the qualities he sees in all four of Weaver’s draft choices – Bey’s shooting, defense and all-around versatility; Lee’s ability to organize the offense, control the team and get players in their spots; Stewart’s hard-nosed play, physicality and rebounding; Hayes’ decision-making and pick-and-roll aplomb. He took a brief pause and another question was about to be asked when Joseph included the rookie from the 2019 draft class, Deividas Sirvydis.

“Every time he’s gotten in the game – he’s been sitting down there for 2½ hours – he hits his first three. That’s incredible. That’s hard to do, to sit down there and mentally lock into the game and come in, whatever minutes it is, whatever seconds it is, and be ready. It’s extremely hard. That just shows you the work he’s put in behind the scenes. All of them are unique.”

It’s a measure of the maturity of the rookies that they don’t take for granted the attention and care that comes their way from the veterans. Joseph has taken Hayes and Lee under his wing. Plumlee – and Okafor, for that matter – have been nothing but gracious with Stewart. Ellington has been an everyday mentor to Bey.

“They’re all great vets,” Bey said. “Just watching them from afar to see how they approach the game, approach their bodies, approach mentally – everything. Every aspect of the game. That’s a blessing to have them around, to be able to learn from them, talk to them, and tell us how the league works.”

Rose adopted Hayes when he was here and went out of his way to emphasize the enormity of the challenge the 19-year-old faced early in the season – not having Summer League or any typical off-season preparation, coming to a foreign country and running a team with players he’d just met. Joseph picked up the mantle as soon as he arrived, just as Casey knew he would.

“He’s a piped piper. He’s one of those guys. His personality has been the same since I’ve known Cory. He hasn’t changed one iota.”

“He really helps me a lot,” Hayes said. “He’s a 10-year point guard, really knows a lot about this league. He had a great game (at Sacramento), came to me and told me what to do and what I should look for and everything. He’s a great guy and a great teammate.”

NBA careers pass in the blink of an eye. Plumlee talks about learning at the knee of Kevin Garnett as a Nets rookie eight years ago as if it were yesterday. It’s easy to see the Pistons rookies, given their bearing, growing into mentors and leaders themselves in rapid order. When they do, they’ll hear themselves repeating the advice passed to them by the likes of Plumlee, Joseph and Ellington, see their veterans in the example they set for their rookies.

“Down the line,” Casey said, “they’ll look back and say, ‘Hey, I had Cory Joseph as a rookie.’ He’s great. That’s what he’s leaving with a lot of players in this league.”