What’s left of the cohort you could reasonably call Pistons veterans didn’t have nights they’ll spend much time celebrating or lamenting. Jerami Grant shot 3 of 12. Mason Plumlee was limited to 14 minutes through three quarters by foul trouble. Wayne Ellington scored three points.
But about those kids Troy Weaver has assembled …
Start with this: Of the 118 points the Pistons scored in the 14-point win over Toronto, 86 came from the six players 22 or under who played. The Pistons have 12 players 24 or younger.
Hamidou Diallo, Saben Lee, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart all played significant roles in a runaway win that enabled the Pistons to sweep the season series against Dwane Casey’s old team, the Toronto Raptors. The Pistons played perhaps their three best offensive games of the season against Toronto even though the contributors changed from game to game with trades, injuries and rotation juggling changing the mix in the games spread across 26 days in March.
The Pistons had six players finish in double figures and four of them – Diallo, Stewart, newcomer Cory Joseph (17 points, four rebounds, five assists) and Frank Jackson (12 points) – came off the bench, which combined for 65 of the 118 points. The Pistons recorded 26 assists on 38 baskets with nine of the 10 players who played registering at least one assist.
“One thing Troy has done, we wanted guys with character, guys who are going to play with each other, commit to the team,” Dwane Casey said. “We have a group of guys like that. The guys that were in the game tonight, they played together and most of all they had a disposition to play hard, a defensive disposition of getting into people, making it hard on Toronto, and that’s what we needed.”
Diallo, Bey and Lee all scored 19 points and did it with great efficiency, combining to hit 19 shots in 32 attempts. Stewart finished with 14 points, hitting 5 of 7 shots and knocking down another triple in two attempts as he and Bey both continue to diversify their scoring – Stewart by doing more away from the basket, Bey by doing more at the rim.
The Pistons have had plenty of encouraging performances from their three drafted rookies – Stewart, Bey and Lee – already this season, but it was the first signs in their uniform of what led Weaver to swing the deal earlier this month for Diallo, who had some breathtaking moments in his second game after getting his feet wet last Friday following more than a month between games while he recovered from a groin injury.
“Once he came in, the game changed,” Casey said. “He kind of lit a fire under everybody. The game sped up and the rest was history.”
The Pistons know Diallo, 6-foot-5 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan and a 45-inch vertical leap, can be an elite perimeter defender and a terror in transition. What he gave glimpses of on Monday, though, was a weapon as the pick-and-roll ballhandler and rim attacker.
“As of right now, just trying to fit in,” said Diallo, who also led the Pistons with 10 rebounds and recorded three of their 26 assists. “Anything coach Casey asks of me to do on the offensive or defensive end, just try to fit in and buy into what’s going on here first. I feel like on the defensive end, taking on the challenge every night of taking on the best player. Just go out there and put your head down and live up to your expectations.”
Diallo put on display the elite athleticism that has excited basketball watchers since his AAU exploits made him a five-star recruit who landed at Kentucky for one season but – like a lot of five-stars who wind up at Kentucky and get lost in the wash – saw his prospect status dimmed as he found a niche but didn’t star, averaging 10 points in 25 minutes a game. That’s how he wound up going 45th in the 2018 draft, picked by the same Oklahoma City front office where Weaver was ensconced as No. 2 on the organizational tree.
“He’s been exceptional,” Lee, 21, said of Diallo, 22, a player he ran across in college. “Especially on the defensive end. You can see his presence and being able to guard different positions and force players into tough situations. Offensively, he’s very aggressive in transition. He’s definitely evolved as an overall player, a playmaker. In college he definitely gave us problems at Kentucky, but today I think you saw a lot of things he can do offensively, even in the pick and roll.”
Diallo will be a restricted free agent this summer, but there is every likelihood that Weaver will get a deal done to keep him wearing a Pistons uniform for the foreseeable future. Weaver is fond of calling the four rookies he drafted four months ago – they’re looking forward to the return of lottery pick Killian Hayes soon – the Pistons “core four.” The alliteration won’t be quite as strong, but Diallo has put himself in position to make it a core five.
“An athletic young man,” Casey said. “Just scratching the surface of what he can be in this league.”