The three first-round draft picks looked like they ran headlong into the rookie wall at the same time. Frank Jackson, brilliant off the bench for the past seven weeks, missed all four of his 3-point shots. Six players were in street clothes, including the considerable scoring punch represented by Jerami Grant, Josh Jackson and Wayne Ellington.
The Pistons had to get scoring from somewhere. Hamidou Diallo and Sekou Doumbouya – two players struggling mightily just a week or so ago, both of them observing fasting as part of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan – gave them enough that a Killian Hayes triple at the buzzer would’ve forced overtime if it had fallen.
Diallo scored a career-high 35 points, hitting 14 of 22 shots. Doumbouya scored a season-high 20, hitting 9 of 15 shots. Doumbouya grabbed eight boards, Diallo seven. On a night the three rookie No. 1 picks shot a combined 4 of 23 – feeling the effects of starting a third game in four nights for the first time – Diallo and Doumbouya took big steps forward to cement their place in the future of a franchise teeming with youth and looking to sort out the possibilities.
“His attack mode was aggressive and he knocked down his 3-point shots, which is something he’s going to continue to develop,” Dwane Casey said of Diallo, an athlete in the 1 percent class even among NBA players with a near 7-foot wingspan to make him even more problematic as a defender and finisher. “Tonight, it was on. And he took on the challenge of guarding (Terry) Rozer, which was big time. Tonight was a career night for him. Really proud of him. One step in his growth of being an elite player in our league.”
Diallo had a six-game stretch in late April in which he shot 6 of 34 and scored a combined 20 points. Since then he’s 25 of 49 in four games and has scored 75 points. He’s also hit 5 of 10 from the 3-point arc in the past two games – his only two starts since joining the Pistons.
That’s encouraging on two fronts – the fact Diallo, who has averaged only one 3-point attempt per game for his NBA career, is taking them without hesitation these days, and also the fact that he’s actually shooting them at a very healthy 45 percent since joining the Pistons.
“I just went out there and took what the defense was giving me and playing within myself,” Diallo said. “It all comes down to putting in the work. I feel like a lot of shooting is based on confidence, so I put in the work and take what the defense gives me.”
As much promise as the Pistons can take out of Diallo’s rebound from his late-April struggles, Doumbouya’s night was perhaps the most eye-opening. The 20-year-old has had bad luck at every turn this season, including two stints in concussion protocol. After showing signs of a breakthrough in training camp, not much went right when the season started. Finishing strong will go a long way toward setting him up for an important third season.
“I feel good. My body feels good,” Doumbouya said. “Everything’s good right now. I’m just playing, not thinking about everything else. I’m just going to work, do what I can do.”
The Pistons played without not only Grant, Jackson and Ellington but Mason Plumlee, Cory Joseph and Dennis Smith Jr., as well. Frank Jackson fought his way to 14 points off the bench in 29 minutes, but shot 5 of 14 in one of the rare inefficient nights he’s logged since joining the rotation in early March. If not for Diallo and Doumbouya, it would have been a very long, very rough night.
It helped Doumbouya, he said, to know that he didn’t have to look over his shoulder much with so many players in street clothes.
“I know that I’m going to play, so I’m just taking advantage of that – being ready,” he said. “I know I’m going to play. I know the coach is going to put me in. I’m just playing free right now.”
“Sekou played with a lot of force around the rim,” Casey said. “Last week, some of those same shots got blocked. Tonight he went up strong and aggressive. He ran the floor the way he should and he knocked down his shots. It’s great. The kid has worked his behind off.”
Casey wasn’t the least bit surprised his rookies struggled with starters’ minutes in a game that was their third in four nights and a back to back, to boot. Isaiah Stewart made just one basket in five tries and had a middling seven boards and one blocked shot in 26 minutes. Saddiq Bey had nine rebounds but shot 2 of 12. Hayes shot 1 of 6, missed his first of two free throws with nine seconds left and the Pistons trailing by two and committed seven turnovers to offset his seven assists.
“Not only physically but mentally,” Casey said of the rookies dragging through the night. “The mental fog is there. I told them today before the game, the older players have been through this. Now you’re playing starters’ minutes for the first time in your career and it takes a toll.”
It’s not going to get any easier in the short term. The Pistons get a day off Wednesday, then face another stretch of three games in four nights, culminating in the final back to back of the season. Rest up, rookies.