featured-image

Dynamic athletes, Smith & Lee vie for opportunity to join Hayes as part of Detroit Pistons puzzle at point guard

Killian Hayes figures prominently in the future of the Pistons at point guard, of course, with the rest of this season going a long way toward determining who joins him to complete the puzzle.

And given that Dwane Casey turned the Toronto Raptors into an NBA power in part by making great use of lineups using two and three point guards, there won’t be any issue for all of the contenders to secure a role if their play warrants as much.

So Dennis Smith Jr. and Saben Lee, dynamic athletes with similar strengths and the same question marks facing them, aren’t competing with each other so much as striving to become the best versions of themselves. If they do that, the rest will sort itself out.

“Saben is still a big part of our future,” Casey said Monday after the trade for Smith – sending Derrick Rose to the Knicks, the Pistons also receiving Charlotte’s 2021 second-round pick – became official. “Delon (Wright) is also a big part of our future, as is Dennis.”

Smith, the No. 9 pick in the 2017 draft, had a promising rookie season in Dallas when he averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists. He got shipped to the Knicks midway through his second season for Kristaps Porzingis and his career has gone sideways since, the Knicks changing direction a few times in the interim and Smith incurring a string of minor injuries to stunt his progress.

But the Pistons see Smith as a reclamation project with similar payoff potential to 2017 draft mate Josh Jackson, enjoying a career renaissance with the Pistons.

“I love Dennis’ speed and quickness, his toughness. He’s an attack-first point guard,” Casey said. “We’ll see how he fits in as far as being a floor general, but great competitor. Tough guy.”

Lee is coming off a promising stint in Saturday’s double-overtime loss to the Lakers. In six second-half minutes, Lee had four points and an assist with the Pistons cutting seven points from their deficit and putting the Lakers on their heels. Lee hounds the ball and quickens the tempo. Much like Smith, an improved perimeter shot will determine the extent of his future impact.

“It felt really good being out there and competing with my teammates,” Lee said. “Just making the right reads, right plays for everyone out there. It felt really good. I think it shows the character of our team and what level we can play at.”

The Pistons are genuinely high on Lee’s potential as evidenced by general manager Troy Weaver lumping Lee, a second-round pick, in with first-round rookies Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey as the franchise’s “core four.” Casey lights up when he talks about Lee.

“He’s an old-school point guard. He has great command of the basketball when he’s going full speed, which is very difficult to do in our league. Defensively, he’s a little pit bull. Love him. I love his spirit. He’s a team-first guy. He’s a leader out there on the floor. He’s just a tough-minded young man. I love everything about Saben.”

Because Hayes and Wright have great size and Lee and Smith are such high-end athletes, there are ways Casey could make use of all of them, just as his Toronto teams found broad roles for Wright, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Smith won’t be available when the Pistons host Brooklyn on Tuesday, but his time in COVID-19 quarantine will be short, Casey said, because Smith is coming from the G League bubble with its own strict protocols in place.

Casey coached under Rick Carlisle at Dallas and runs a similar offense to the one Smith knows from his days with the Mavericks. Smith let Casey know he was eager to join the Pistons and re-establish himself as a valued NBA player.

“I tell all players, ‘Let’s start out with a clean slate,’ ” Casey said. “It’s going to take all of us to bring him along, but our coaching staff will assign someone to him to vouch for him and go over things and then the players on the floor will be able to help. We’ve got a great group of guys willing to mentor. It won’t take very long for him. He’s a smart kid. He’s a basketball junkie. One of the first things he said was, ‘Coach, I want to watch film.’ He shouldn’t have said that because I’m going to take him up on the opportunity.

“We’ll see what happens, but he’s going to get the opportunity here. Why he didn’t play in New York of why Dallas traded him … I like guys who have a little bit of an edge or something to prove.”

Smith and Lee get the rest of this season to use the 23 minutes a game that Rose was playing to prove they should be viewed alongside Hayes as part of the Pistons future at point guard.