Camp Questions: Figuring out how to pair lottery picks Cunningham, Hayes a Pistons priority

(Editor’s note: The Pistons open training camp next week with a roster consisting entirely of players acquired within the past 12 months since Troy Weaver was named general manager in June 2020. They’ll be one of the NBA’s youngest teams again and development will be the driving force of their season. Pistons.com today begins a four-part series examining the leading agenda items to begin getting sorted out in training camp ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season. In Part I, we’ll look at the addition of Cade Cunningham, how he fits with 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes and how he might be used as a rookie.)

As the first NBA No. 1 overall pick to join the Pistons since Bob Lanier 51 years earlier, Cade Cunningham arrives with expectations that perhaps only Lanier, Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill before him faced in franchise history.

Now it’s Dwane Casey’s charge to manage those expectations and devise the best schemes and lineup combinations to help Cunningham realize the vast potential that ultimately led the Pistons to choose him over an impressive list of candidates making up one of the best draft classes in a generation.

A huge part of Cunningham’s appeal as the No. 1 pick for the Pistons was his extreme versatility and the flexibility it allows the front office in building the roster around him and Casey in fielding lineups. At once, that versatility makes it both easier and more challenging to strike on the right formula to maximize the bounty for the Pistons in obtaining the 6-foot-8 Cunningham, who turns 20 on Saturday.

Cunningham was the de facto point guard for Oklahoma State in his only college season and figures to have the ball in his hands a great deal from day one in the NBA. But Casey made clear as the Pistons practiced for Summer League to launch Cunningham’s career – using lineups that likely will look strikingly like the one the Pistons utilize during the NBA regular season – that he’ll resist labeling Cunningham and second-year pro Killian Hayes as point guard or shooting guard, preferring instead 1A and 1B.

The Cunningham-Hayes dynamic will be perhaps the most important element of Cunningham’s integration to the NBA to sort out for the Pistons. Hayes was robbed of more than half of his rookie season, one already set back by the COVID-19 pandemic limiting typical rookie orientation, by a hip injury suffered two weeks into his career. Hayes, two months older than Cunningham, is blessed with tremendous size and vision as a lead ballhandler but needs repetition and experience to become a more efficient orchestrator.

Given the importance of both Cunningham and Hayes to the future of the Pistons, it’s inevitable that they’ll share the court for significant chunks of games. But will their development be enhanced by playing together more to hasten chemistry or will it be impeded by the compounding issues that come with fielding lineups built around two 20-year-old playmakers?

That’s at the essence of how Casey will build out his rotation. You could make a case for having Cunningham come off the bench to serve as the primary playmaker for a second unit that might also include Frank Jackson, a player who blossomed with the Pistons last season when Casey decided he was less a point guard than a scorer. Jackson’s ability to defend point guards and play off the ball would seem to mesh nicely with Cunningham’s skill sets.

But the likelihood is that the No. 1 overall pick is going to find himself in the starting lineup on opening night Oct. 20 when the Pistons host Chicago, nominally as the shooting guard alongside Hayes. Casey’s reluctance to label them in conventional terminology reflects his history as a coach with a preference for making playmaking a shared responsibility. Kyle Lowry often shared the floor – and the basketball – with Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright or Cory Joseph, often three of them playing together.

Joseph was brought back to be something of a security blanket for Hayes and Cunningham, a veteran comfortable playing off the bench or as a starter. If Casey decides to stagger minutes for Hayes and Cunningham, Joseph can be relied upon to relieve his young teammates of the burden of every-possession playmaking when he shares the floor with either one. Another young guard, second-year pro Saben Lee, could also push his way into the mix and given Casey yet another playmaking option.

The possibilities for how to use Cunningham are vast. That’s a big part of the reason he begins his NBA career carrying the weight of enormous expectations. The challenge of figuring out how best to make use of him starts in training camp.