Pistons young starters need all the time together they can get, but injury wave presents challenges

Isaiah Stewart
Isaiah Stewart’s summer ankle injury began an unwelcome trend that’s now seen three other members of the anticipated Pistons starting lineup miss time in training camp with the same injury
Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons are halfway finished with preseason games and two-thirds of the way through training camp and they’re still waiting to have their expected starting lineup available.

A rash of sprained ankles – starting with Isaiah Stewart during his stint with USA Basketball’s Select Team in July and claiming four others since camp opened – has made for a less than ideal preseason to date.

“It’ll definitely be a challenge for us to build that chemistry as soon as we can,” Stewart said after the Pistons practiced in New York on Tuesday afternoon. “Having certain guys out with sprained ankles, it’s unfortunate. I feel like we’re going to have to use every practice we can to try to build chemistry when those guys are back.”

The latest to suffer an ankle injury was Saddiq Bey, who sat out the second half at Memphis and didn’t practice on Tuesday.

“He’s a little gimpy,” Dwane Casey said. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. It’s nothing serious, they tell me.”

Cunningham remains in a holding pattern with a sprained ankle that’s kept him out for two weeks. It’s now looking unlikely Cunningham will appear in a preseason game given that Casey has said he’d want the rookie to get a few practices under his belt before exposing him to a game.

“We’re not going to rush Cade back. When he comes back, it doesn’t mean he’s ready to go,” he said. “He’s too valuable for us. The young man has missed valuable time as far as the speed of the game, the physicality of the game, the sets, the calls. We have to be smart on how we integrate him back into things.”

Coaches always look at what they can control and sprained ankles aren’t among them. After the Pistons were sluggish in a 127-92 loss at Memphis on Monday night, Casey will be looking for a much more forceful display in New York on Wednesday.

“Against good, pressure defense, if you don’t have attention to detail, if you don’t run your offense with speed and crispness, you won’t be able to run it,” he said. “That’s one thing these next few days, we’ve got to get where we’re running our offense with space. We lost our energy level. Our whole competitive level went down.”

If Casey had a wish list that extended to those areas beyond his control, it would surely include the following:

Get Cade Cunningham up and running – If the No. 1 overall pick suffers the most common injury known to basketball players and misses a week or two mid-season, no big deal. When it happens to start his career, everyone gets a little antsy. The Pistons hope to have Cunningham wearing their uniform for the better part of the next two decades, so in that context a game or two – or a week or two – hardly matters. But the sooner he gets back to practice without any lingering issues, the sooner he starts checking off all the “firsts” and banks all the repetitions and experiences that go into the seasoning of young players – young players on their way to becoming young stars.

Keep the first unit together – This sort of goes hand in hand with getting Cunningham back. Because he’s missed all but the first few practices of training camp, the anticipated starting lineup – one that includes three 20-year-olds and four first- or second-year players – hasn’t played a single possession against an opponent with eight days until the season opener. It’s not only Cunningham’s absence that’s made that the reality. Killian Hayes also missed a week with a sprained ankle and now Bey is limited. There’s a steep learning curve ahead of the starting lineup and the Pistons haven’t shaved any degrees off of it yet.

Sort out the second unit – There’s more stability with the backup unit but still at least one looming question for Casey to answer: Who’s the odd man out? You can bank on Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk as the anchors. Don’t be surprised if they’re both on the floor to end games, too. Josh Jackson is probably the surest bet to take one wing spot. Frank Jackson – another who lost a week of camp with a sprained ankle – and Hamidou Diallo, both signed to two-year deals as restricted free agents over the off-season, each have compelling cases to win a role based on significantly different skill sets. For Diallo, it’s the size, athleticism and disruptive defensive ability; for Jackson, it’s a 40 percent 3-point stroke and the ability to score points in bunches in a variety of ways. There might be opportunities for Casey to fit all three into the rotation, but in more conventional lineups there’s a spot for Trey Lyles, who has flashed a 3-point threat in the early going.

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