Pistons rookies put the future on display as they battle to the buzzer at Charlotte

Killian Hayes
Killian Hayes joined Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars as Pistons rookies with 8 straight gams of 5 or more assists when he registered 6 in Saturday’s game at Charlotte
Brock Williams-Smith (NBAE via Getty Images)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

There wasn’t much subtlety to the symbolism of Game 64’s storyline for the Pistons. Just as a good chunk of the franchise’s future fortunes rests on the shoulders of their three rookie first-round draft picks, so did Saturday’s competitiveness rise and fall on their travails and successes.

Isaiah Stewart spent most of the first half in foul trouble, but the Pistons were a noticeably different team – down 16 to Charlotte at halftime but outscored by just two with Stewart in the game – when he was on the floor compared to when he was on the bench.

“Ticky-tack, tough fouls,” Dwane Casey said. “That kind of took our spirit. He’s our spirit out there on the floor.”

Saddiq Bey – on a night he pushed Steph Curry and Allen Iverson from the history books – struggled with his shot until heating up and helping the Pistons cut a 21-point deficit to three in the span of less than eight second-half minutes.

“He didn’t shoot it efficiently tonight,” Casey said after Bey’s 22 points came on 7 of 21 shooting but a solid 5 of 12 from the 3-point line. “I thought he turned it on. He really spaced the floor in the second half. He’s one guy teams have to game plan for. You hear ’em yelling, ‘Gotta rotate, stay home, stay home.’ That’s the kind of spacing you’ve got to have to win in today’s game.”

Killian Hayes gave himself a harsh first-half critique, but finished strong – just as he hopes to close the final two weeks of a rookie season interrupted by a three-month injury absence with a rush.

“I feel more comfortable,” Hayes said on a night he joined Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas – a few guys whose Pistons careers turned out OK – by racking up six assists to give him eight straight games of at least five, elevating him to the company of the Hall of Famers as the only Pistons rookies with such a streak. “I need to work on being more consistent every single game. I’ve played many games now. I feel way more comfortable.”

The Pistons missed Jerami Grant’s 22-plus points a game and they missed Wayne Ellington’s floor-spacing shooting and Mason Plumlee’s all-around contributions and Cory Joseph’s steady hand on a night seven players were unavailable, including backup center Jahlil Okafor and recently acquired Hamidou Diallo.

But the rookies and Frank Jackson, whose career renaissance continued as the 22-year-old scored a season-high 25 points off the bench, made it a hard-earned 107-94 win for a Charlotte team, fortified by the return of LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk, clinging to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Stewart finished with nine points, two rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes. In addition to his 22 points, Bey chipped in seven boards, five assists, two blocks, two steals and zero turnovers in 40 hard minutes. And Hayes, playing his 12th game since returning in early April, finished with 10 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals with eight of his points, five of his assists and both steals – plus a blocked shot – coming after halftime.

“He didn’t play well at all in the first half,” Casey said of his 19-year-old point guard. “We talked about it at halftime. He picked it up and I thought he played a solid second half. I thought he was cerebral in the fourth quarter, made some kickouts and made some plays. This experience is going to pay off. It’s not paying off now. It hurts. It’s painful, taking these losses, but it’s going to bear fruit at this time next year.”

Bey’s five 3-pointers give him 10 games this season with at least that many in a game, breaking the tie with Curry and Iverson for the NBA rookie record.

“I love the kid,” Casey said. “He’s going to be a solid pro for a long, long time. He’s a guy you can build your team around.”

That’s the plan. Saben Lee, the fourth rookie draft pick, contributed seven assists in 16 minutes and helped the Pistons come back from 21 down in the second half. He’s part of their future, too. Grant was as big a free-agent find as there was in the class of 2020 and he’ll slide in to his featured role as the primary scorer and excellent two-way player when next season tips off. They’ll add, at minimum, a high-profile rookie with their lottery pick.

But so much of their future is tied up in Hayes, Stewart and Bey – and on a night the Pistons didn’t have all their hands on deck, their importance to the franchise’s future was underscored.

“I like where we are right now,” Hayes said. “We’re a young team. We’re not afraid of nobody. I think we’re in a great place.”

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