For all the platitudes offered in praise of rookies, the best testaments to their progress come when they are rewarded with the ultimate measure of a coach’s trust: playing time with a game on the line.
So when Dwane Casey gave Blake Griffin a brief rest in a recent fourth quarter with the Pistons having within their grasp a win that seemed beyond their reach when they fell 23 points behind in the second quarter, it was instructive who did not leave the floor when it was time for Griffin to re-enter with less than five minutes to play: Saddiq Bey.
Again in Sunday’s loss to Utah, Bey was on the floor with the Pistons again attempting to rally back from an early 20-point deficit. In both games, Casey has used a lineup with Bey out alongside the four other Pistons starters.
The 19th pick in November’s draft is performing like one of the top rookies in the class, trailing only lottery picks Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman – the first three players drafted – and Tyrese Haliburton among scoring leaders, giving the Pistons 10.6 points in 23 minutes a game. He’s shooting 44.2 percent from the 3-point arc and taking two-thirds of his shots from there but flashing the ability to score off the dribble and take smaller plays into the paint.
The fact he lasted until the 19th pick was a surprise on draft night – many had him pegged for San Antonio with the 11th pick – and more than that to the Pistons. General manager Troy Weaver was lining up draft-night trades to add to the No. 7 pick the Pistons held going into the draft, but he knew what the sweet spots were for likely trades and arranged the 10 predraft workouts and interviews each team was allowed accordingly.
“We were shocked,” Casey said. “He’s one player we did not meet with because we didn’t think he was going to be there later where we were trying to get the pick. Luckily he was and we jumped on it. Troy had a good feel for him. Our scouts had a good feel for him. It was a no-brainer, but we were surprised he was available where he was.”
Casey coached Kyle Lowry in Toronto and was in Minnesota for Randy Foye’s rookie year – Villanova players under Jay Wright – so he fully expected Bey to come well prepared. “I’ve had Jay’s players before, quite a few of them, and I know what they bring to the table.”
But Casey wasn’t sure Bey would be able to claim a spot in the rotation quite as quickly and assuredly as he has. Getting crunch-time minutes before his 10th career game is another level yet.
“It was a blessing to have that opportunity to play down the stretch with my guys,” Bey said after he hit two big baskets in overtime of last week’s win over Phoenix. “The team rallied together to come back and it means a lot. Trying to control what I can control and to play hard and whatever opportunity comes, try to be ready. That’s the mindset.”
There’s long been an informal mentor-protégé structure to the NBA for rookies who arrive without a sense of entitlement and a willingness to solicit and accept constructive criticism. When Weaver spoke of his guideposts for draft success as finding the right person and having faith that the basketball would then take care of itself, that was at the root of it. By every indication, he nailed character traits across the board in draft picks Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee and Bey.
And Mason Plumlee, who remembers the influence of Kevin Garnett on him as a Brooklyn rookie seven years ago, sees in Bey the epitome of the proper rookie mindset.
“He’s at the top, for sure,” he said. “His approach to preparation, his approach to practice, his approach to the game is super mature. I think that’s why he’s able to step up and make big plays. That’s why the staff and his teammates trust him.”
“He’s got a very solid demeanor for a rookie,” Delon Wright said. “Not afraid to take shots. As soon as he comes in, he’s ready to shoot. That’s very important. If he can keep knocking down shots and be a solid player, he’ll be great for us.”
Bey is a little unlike many rookies, who usually have one or two things they do well enough to see the floor but need to pull other parts of their game up to merit a broader role. Bey arrived as a solid all-around player at both ends, but don’t confuse that with limited growth potential. His improvement will come in incremental gains in many areas, he believes.
The 3-point shooting is the most obvious of Bey’s contributions, but it speaks volumes that when Jerami Grant picked up his fifth foul in overtime against Phoenix it was Bey that Casey chose to guard Devin Booker.
“He’s mature for his age,” Casey said. “On offense and defense. He’s smart, he’s had great, physical switches and he’s got the footwork and foot speed to stay in front of a guy like Booker. I had no qualms because he’s not a typical rookie.”
So what does he need to do better?
“I would say everything,” Bey said. “I want to be the best player I can possibly be. Until I’m perfect at everything, I’ve got to continue to work. Every day, just work on every part of my craft, every aspect of my game. No matter if I use it in a game or not, just continue to work at it and try to be the most complete player I can be.”
But Bey’s 3-point success – and his fearlessness in letting it fly – gives him a chance to have an elite tool in a toolbox with one of pretty much everything in it.
“He works on it 24/7. That’s not a surprise,” Casey said. “He’s got the confidence. He’s mature for his age and he doesn’t have any problem at all getting his feet set and letting it go. Love the way he plays. Love the maturity. Does he have room for improvement? Yes, all our players do. But really excited for his future.”
If the only barrier to Bey’s improvement is the hard work required to get there, then there’s no barrier at all.
“That’s the mentality I have to have to be successful,” he said. “I know I have to continue to work.”