Preseason over, still much to sort out: A handful of Pistons preseason impressions

Dwane Casey was one of the voices pushing for the NBA to allow his Pistons and the seven other teams excluded from the Orlando bubble relaunch of the 2019-20 season to experience some type of team-camp environment over the summer months. Eventually, the NBA obliged. The Pistons congregated for two-plus weeks starting in mid-September.

How much value that proves to be for the Pistons is anyone’s guess at this point, but the fact is the team that dispersed from the Pistons Performance Center in early October barely resembles the one that came together three weeks ago for training camp.

Only two players who were part of the fall Pistons mini-bubble a few months ago – Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya – remain on the roster. The two veteran stars excused from that camp to follow their own diligent off-season regimens, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, complete the cohort of Pistons holdovers from the team that disbanded in March when the season was suspended at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also since that time, the Pistons hired a new general manager, Troy Weaver, whose maneuverings over a wild week of November resulted in the Pistons acquiring the 11 new players – four via the draft, four more in free agency and three others in trade – who complete the roster that travels to Minnesota for Wednesday’s season opener.

The reality is Casey will be evaluating everything for the next few weeks, at least, to get a better feel for which lineup combinations are most cohesive.

But the past few weeks and four preseason games have at least provided a framework and yielded a handful of impressions. Here’s a handful of the most prominent:

  • Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose appear thoroughly prepared physically to fulfill the roles Casey envisions for them – Griffin playing 30 minutes or more as the anchor of the starting line, Rose in the mid to upper 20s as the anchor of the bench. They’ll team up to close games. For all they mean for the future of the Pistons for the examples they set for the many young players on the roster – a role enabled by their complete embrace of mentorship – no two players will drive winning in the present more than Griffin and Rose.
  • Josh Jackson and Sekou Doumbouya emerged as front-runners for major roles off of the bench. Jackson’s body of work was probably the most promising development of camp. He shot it confidently from the 3-point arc, hitting 9 of 18, and looked like every bit the elite defender he was projected to be as the No. 4 pick of 2017. Doumbouya looks like he’s made the hoped-for leap between first and second seasons despite the handicap of a non-conventional off-season. He’s better conditioned, more certain with the ball in his hands and a more stout defender. Their athleticism and size give them a chance to be impact bench players and ideal complements to Rose with the second unit.
  • The lineup spot with the widest array of possibilities for Casey is at shooting guard. Delon Wright, Svi Mykhailiuk and Wayne Ellington each got eight first-half minutes in two of the four preseason games. Each offers something a little different. Wright is going to have a role; he’s too versatile not to. Casey wants him as the starter next to rookie Killian Hayes to ease the burden of full-time point guard from the 19-year-old’s shoulders. Mykhailiuk has the most offensive upside, not just as an elite 3-point shooter but showing clear signs in preseason of his maturation as a passer and ballhandler with potential as a pick-and-roll operator at 6-foot-8 – and Casey now talks first about Mykhailiuk’s strides defensively. Ellington’s forte is his 3-point shooting but more than that his ability to lose defenders with constant motion and shrewd use of screens to shake free for open attempts.
  • Killian Hayes appears a quick study. After seven turnovers in his debut, he committed a combined five in the last three preseason games. Troy Weaver said on draft night that Hayes’ defense and passing ability would be areas he was ready to contribute immediately and that looks spot on. His size, instincts and aptitude make him that rarest of breeds: a rookie ready to compete at the defensive end. He’s wired to find the open shooter in the corner and that size, again, gives him the ability to fling passes from the opposite wing to complete the hookup. The shooting efficiency numbers likely will be shaky early on – as they often are for rookie decision-makers; how those numbers change as his first season unfolds will be a telling indicator of Hayes’ progress in transitioning from life as a European pro to an NBA starter.
  • Outsiders hand-wringing about Weaver’s investment in centers – in an age where they seem like disposable commodities – is overblown. Mason Plumlee’s contract accounts for less than 7.5 percent of the $109 million salary cap this season and he’s a starting-caliber center who gives the Pistons eminently solid play at both ends. His career numbers show teams perform better with Plumlee on the floor. He’s a reliable defender, an above-average facilitator and – by all accounts – a great teammate. The Pistons rightly feel Plumlee will be a great influence on Hayes for his screening ability and chops as a secondary playmaker. The veteran’s minimum contract they gave Okafor looks like a bargain. Okafor is in line to play close to 20 minutes a game as Plumlee’s backup. He’s always been a scoring presence and, like Plumlee, he can contribute offensively in ways other than scoring.

  • The other rookies – Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee – all showed things in preseason to give Pistons fans reason to be optimistic about not only their futures but further talent acquisition on Weaver’s watch. Stewart is a bundle of raw energy who throws off a young Ben Wallace vibe, but the Pistons also see bristling offensive potential in the 19-year-old. Casey is already a big fan. Bey’s size, versatility and poise is striking. A few laps around the league and he’s going to be hard to keep out of the lineup, though Jackson and Doumbouya might prevent a significant immediate role. And Lee, on a two-way contract, strikes as someone who has a chance to be one of those unique players who routinely stirs things up off the bench.

Given all of the parts thrown together during the blur of the NBA’s tornadic November transaction window, those impressions are going to be altered by the week – perhaps by the day – in a condensed NBA season ahead. Fascinating to see where the Pistons land when it’s all behind them come late spring.