If you were helming the PR campaign for Troy Weaver’s candidacy for NBA Executive of the Year, you might want to start your submission with the first eight minutes of the season’s 58th game. Of, if you prefer this framing, the third game when all three of the rookies Weaver picked in the 2020 draft’s first round started together.
The Pistons played without seven players who’ve been part of the rotation at one point or another this season, including starters Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Cory Joseph, and eventually that caught up to them on a night Cleveland had its preferred starting lineup intact.
Cleveland came back to take the lead in Monday’s fourth quarter, all of which served to give Dwane Casey another test to present his precocious kids – the chance to close out a win. Those first eight minutes – when the Pistons sprinted to a 32-9 lead – will sell tickets and stir the fan base, but it was the last five minutes that will give Casey a restful night’s sleep after the Pistons pulled out a 109-105 win.
“We started the game with a lot of intensity, a lot of ball movement, shooting the ball well, but at the end of the game, the young guys executed, defensive and offensively,” Casey said. “Got stops when we needed to and made some good plays. That’s what we were looking for, making sure we executed and attention to detail in the last few minutes. We did more good things than bad.”
Their three dynamic first-round picks – Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey – dazzled for those first eight-plus minutes, but they all made big plays in the fourth quarter, too.
Hayes, who established career highs in points (12), assists (nine) and minutes (33), turned scorer in the fourth quarter, hitting all four of his shots, including two mid-range jump shots on consecutive possessions with less than four minutes to play and Cleveland surging. Stewart hit both of his fourth-quarter shots, including a power move with 57 seconds left – set up by a nice feed from Bey – to break a tie and collected five fourth-quarter rebounds.
Stewart finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds and over his last three games – two of them starts – he’s averaging 17.3 points and 16.3 rebounds.
In context, the performance of the three Pistons first-rounders is even more impressive. Stewart matched up for the bulk of his 31 minutes against Jarrett Allen, a fourth-year center that Cleveland traded for and intends to invest in heavily to be its long-term starter. Stewart overpowered Allen physically, limiting him to five points and five rebounds in 28 minutes, leading Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff to close with reserve Isaiah Hartenstein instead of Allen.
“He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve met,” said Pistons newcomer Tyler Cook, who scored 12 points – all on dunks – in his first career start. “He’s one of those guys who just doesn’t stop. He works relentlessly, tirelessly on the glass, screening to get guys open. I’m glad he’s on my team and I don’t have to guard him or play against him.”
“Isaiah is a hit-first guy,” Casey said. “He really takes up space. He fights for space on both sides of the ball. It’s not going to be one out of five times; it’s going to be every time down the floor. He’s going to fight for every inch on the court.”
Bey matched up against fellow rookie Isaac Okoro, who went 14 spots ahead of him with the fifth pick. Okoro, drafted for his advanced defense and toughness, let Bey get loose for 11 3-point attempts and was outscored 20-6 and outrebounded 5-3. Bey set an NBA rookie record by making at least six 3-point baskets in a game for a fifth time.
“This young man is a sponge,” Casey said. “He learns. Tonight he learned from his last game, making a verbal count instead of rushing and making a mistake by throwing it in (on an inbounds pass, a reference to a critical turnover suffered last week in a less to the Clippers). That’s another sign of his growth.”
Hayes was matched against Cleveland’s young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, taken in the 2018 and 2019 drafts with premium lottery picks. He threaded beautifully feathered lob passes to both Stewart and Cook for dunks, darted inside to do his scoring and played well at the defensive end, as well.
“A lot of times it just takes time for the chemistry to develop, but Killian has a feel for the game,” Cook said of the connection with Hayes, who returned from a three-month injury absence less than three weeks ago. “But Killian has a feel for the game. He knows where to put it, how much he needs to put on it for us to catch and finish to make my job easier. A guy like myself, you love a point guard like Killian. It’s been a quick time period for us to get used to each other because of him. He’s made it work.”
The fourth Weaver draft choice, Saben Lee, also left his fingerprints on the win, registering six assists to go with five rebounds and a bucket on two shots in his 15 minutes. It was the second time in four days the Pistons played without a single player older than the 24-year-old Josh Jackson – who finished with 16 points and hit two big free throws in the final minute – and came away with a win.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Jackson said of playing with so many rookies and young players. “I’m really excited about all of our young guys. I feel a little bit older when I’m around them. I’m really excited about all those young guys to see what they can do the next couple of years.”