Play fast but limit mistakes: That’s Casey’s challenge for youthful Pistons

Cade Cunningham
Cade Cunningham has been limited in training camp after suffering a mild ankle sprain as the Pistons Wednesday preseason opener approaches
Pistons Photo
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Dwane Casey knows what the numbers say about shots taken early in the clock as opposed to later – the earlier the better is the short version – and he knows that young teams that play too fast are prone to turnovers. The Pistons are not only a young team but one that will lean heavily on two 20-year-old ballhandlers, Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham.

So there’s a bit of a tightrope walk ahead of Casey and the Pistons this season – play fast to get good shots but take better care of the ball – but it’s one Casey is determined they’ll take.

“That’s the age-old issue,” Casey said. “I think about that a lot.”

The Pistons finished 25th in turnovers last season, averaging 14.9 a game. Casey’s tolerance level is 12 a game, which would have been third in the league a season ago. Given that the Pistons turned the roster over almost completely before the 2020-21 season even tipped off – only four players from the previous season, only one of whom was still around at season’s end – on top of their preposterous youth, Casey understood why turnovers were a consistent plague even if it didn’t lessen his frustration.

But he’s building in some safeguards to help address the situation this season even if the Pistons will again have the ball in the hands of inexperienced playmakers.

“We’ve got to make sure we define our roles with our players,” he said. “Last year we were trying to see what guys could do. This year we kind of know.”

The Pistons have two colts in Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo who absolutely can terrorize transition defenses. But Casey wants them running the wings and finishing, not running one-man fast breaks.

“Josh is an elite finisher. We want Josh and Hami up the floor so they can be elite finishers,” Casey said. “Let’s let our pushers – Cory (Joseph), Killian, Cade – push it down in thrust. Maybe Josh and Hami will bring it down two out of 10, but lessen those numbers.”

To help put a fine point on Casey’s emphasis on reducing turnovers, each side in Pistons scrimmages during training camp starts with five basketballs on their ball rack. For every turnover, one ball comes off. And when your rack is empty?

“When you run out of basketballs, you have to run,” Jackson said. “We’ve just been trying to take care of the basketball as much as we can while still playing fast and being athletic and using our youth.”

The Pistons haven’t had Cunningham much so far in training camp after he suffered a mild ankle sprain last week. Frank Jackson turned his ankle on Friday and he, too, is still sidelined.

“Our guys are legitimately injured,” Casey said, “but you want to get back as quick as you can because of the competition level at each position. We have so many guys equal in talent at all positions.”

Whether Cunningham will be available for Wednesday’s preseason opener is up in the air, though if he’s still not cleared for practice on Tuesday it would seem a long shot. The Pistons had almost three weeks of voluntary team workouts before camp opened last week, so Cunningham got a jump on playing alongside Hayes and with his teammates through September but the sooner he’s back the better for the chemistry Casey hopes will take hold before the regular season opener Oct. 20.

Casey hasn’t revealed his lineup or rotation blueprints so far and the injury situation might mean Wednesday’s opener won’t offer any clues if Cunningham and Frank Jackson don’t suit up. But whatever happens, it will represent a starting point to see how the Pistons walk the tightrope between playing fast to maximize their depth and youthful athleticism while limiting giveaways.

“I think you have to go out and play those first couple of games and see from there,” Rodney McGruder said. “That’s how you scale it back and see. First you have to play the games and see how the flow of the new offense goes.”

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