Camp questions: How will Casey put together minutes at small forward?

Tony Snell
Tony Snell is the presumptive starter at small forward, giving the Pistons more size than they had to finish the 2018-19 season.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: In the week leading to the opening of Pistons training camp Tuesday, will look at the five biggest questions they’ll need to start sorting out before rosters are set and the season tips off on Oct. 23. Today: How Dwane Casey pieces together the small forward position.)

When the Pistons traded both Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson within 24 last February, outsiders were to be forgiven for assuming an organizational decision had been reached to run up the white flag on 2018-19.

Dwane Casey and his players never saw it that way – and their response to the moves was a thoroughly underappreciated aspect to their playoff run.

They were 24-29 at the time of the Bullock and Johnson deals, 1½ games out of the final playoff spot. It was tough to spin it as anything other than a retrenching. The motivation for the trades was clear – to deal players ahead of free agency for value in return – but it was hard to see how dealing the two players who consumed most of the minutes at small forward would improve the team’s postseason odds.

Casey made it work, though, with a big assist from the successful recruitment of Wayne Ellington from the buyout market, a team effort that included pitches from owner Tom Gores and vice chairman Arn Tellem, Ellington’s former agent, in addition to Casey. Ellington and Langston Galloway, though undersized, battled every night against bigger players and gave the Pistons 48 minutes of fearless 3-point bombing at that critical position.

Rookie Bruce Brown’s defensive versatility helped make it work as did Luke Kennard’s ability to swing between both wing positions.

In a span of 24 hours last June, the Pistons expanded their options at small forward well beyond last spring’s patchwork quilt. But the onus will be on Casey to figure out how to piece together the puzzle to the benefit of the 2019-20 roster.

The candidates are:

  • Tony Snell, acknowledged by Casey as the presumptive starter going into training camp. Acquired from Milwaukee on the night before the June draft, Snell – a six-year veteran with 218 career starts – brings two vital components to the position: extraordinary length (a 6-foot-11½ wingspan) to facilitate above-average defense and volume 3-point shooting at above-average rates.

  • Sekou Doumbouya, taken the day after the Snell trade. He’s the youngest player drafted by the NBA – Doumbouya won’t turn 19 until Dec. 23 – since eligibility rules changed after the 2005 draft and it’s unlikely he’s ready to press for playing time out of the gate. But a little G League seasoning and time in a radically new environment to increase the French teen’s comfort level and the Pistons could have a different player in the second half.

  • Svi Mykhailiuk, who’ll benefit from a full off-season and training camp with the Pistons after coming over from the Lakers in the Bullock trade last winter and then suffering a season-ending hand injury. Mykhailiuk has put together a strong summer, Casey said, and his size and shooting plus playmaking abilities give him a skill set unique among the contenders for playing time.

    On a conventional depth chart, those three players comprise the Pistons cohort of small forwards. They all have prototypical size for the position after the Pistons played the last third of 2018-19 without a single player – once Mykhailiuk was lost to injury, at least – who met that qualification.

    But Casey’s creativity and willingness to be proactive in matchups lengthen this list considerably. Galloway could wind up there again if Casey likes what a Tim Frazier-Derrick Rose combination could give him in an up-tempo second unit. So could second-year player Khyri Thomas, appreciated by Casey for his tenacity and basketball IQ, if he can catch Galloway.

    Luke Kennard could also drop down to small forward with this unit to accommodate any combination of Galloway, Frazier and Rose in the backcourt – if he’s not in the starting lineup. And Brown’s defensive chops, length and strength mean Casey can use him anywhere on the perimeter.

    The challenge is different this time around for Casey and he’ll take this set of circumstances any day over the options at his disposal last winter and spring. But more and better options also mean more time required to gauge the possibilities with every unique combination of players. It starts in training camp.

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