Summer League checklist: Cade-Killian connection top Pistons priority in Las Vegas

Summer League joined a million other things as a 2020 COVID casualty, but the Pistons are going to cram two summers worth of Summer League into one over the next week-plus in Las Vegas.

It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s the most anticipated Pistons Summer League in franchise history with No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham joining last year’s “Core Four” rookies on a roster with at least double the number of players who will be on the Pistons payroll in some form or fashion for the 2021-22 NBA season compared to a typical summer roster.

The relevance of Summer League for the Pistons was underscored by the release of the schedule where all four scheduled tipoffs – there’ll be a fifth game added after the first four get played, opponent to be determined based on record to that point – will come in prime time and all four games will be played at the bigger venue, the Thomas & Mack Center where the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels play home games.

The first two Pistons games, not coincidentally, come against two other teams with 2021 lottery picks – Oklahoma City (8:30 p.m. Sunday) and Josh Giddey first, then Houston (9 p.m. Tuesday) and Jalen Green, who was taken with the second pick after Cunningham was claimed by the Pistons.

Among the items on the Pistons checklist for their time in the desert are:

  • The Cade-Killian connection – Nothing will be more closely scrutinized than the utilization and compatibility of their two recent lottery picks sharing the backcourt, 2020 seventh pick Killian Hayes and Cunningham. Dwane Casey said this week he wasn’t going to think of or refer to Hayes and Cunningham as point guard and shooting guard but rather as 1A and 1B. The idea is to make roles less structured and to share playmaking and ballhandling responsibilities.

    That will work as well as the chemistry that forms between the two precocious playmakers allows it to. Casey said this week of Hayes, “his physicality, his speed and the force he’s playing with right now is off the charts.” The size they bring – Hayes at 6-foot-5, Cunningham at 6-foot-8 – allows Casey tremendous flexibility in manipulating matchups at both ends.

    It will be interesting to see how much time they spend playing alongside each other and how much run each one gets as the primary playmaker. For certain, the Pistons will spend the bulk of their 2021-22 season with the ball in the hands of a pair of 20-year-olds upon whom much of their future rides.

  • Bey watch – Coming off a first-team All-Rookie season and a stint with the USA Basketball Select Team, Bey fits the profile of a player who goes through Summer League practices but is less than a full participant in games. Maybe play the first game or two and then shut it down? We’ll see.

    Arguing against that, perhaps, is the fact that Summer League is a great opportunity for Bey to also utilize this time to get in sync with the Hayes-Cunningham backcourt tandem. Casey said he wanted the three perimeter spots to function as a unit with shared duties and he’d said during last season that operating in pick and roll was part of the next phase for Bey, so this would be the time to test drive that.

    Rookie Isaiah Livers, who has the toolkit to function in much the same ways Bey does, will be an observer only. The foot injury that ended his Michigan career, subsequently requiring surgery, will prevent him from participating.

    “We’re going to take our time,” Casey said Thursday. “There’s no reason to rush it. This will be a great development year for him. He’s a sponge. I’ve got him on the side taking notes and making sure he’s keeping up with the terminology and what’s going on on the floor. We’re going to take it slow and make sure we get it right.”

  • Let’s see Saben Lee – The Pistons “other” rookie point guard from 2020-21, Lee will be freed from the constraints of the two-way contract he played under last season and will use Summer League to show where he’s made strides as a shooter and all-around floor leader.

    Lee’s athleticism gives him a real chance to carve out a niche as a bench sparkplug and he showed surprising playmaking chops as a rookie. His 8.0 assists per 36 minutes were better than both Cory Joseph (7.5) and Hayes (7.4). Lee’s 3-point shot is a swing skill that will either unleash or limit his growth potential. Lee shot 3-pointers surprisingly well (34.8 percent) as a rookie given his college resume, but only 11 percent of his attempts came from the arc. The first step toward evolving into a threat will be to see if the 3-point attempt rate takes a leap in Summer League.

  • Summer of Sekou – It says something about both the transitory nature of the NBA and the scope of the retooling since Troy Weaver arrived as general manager 14 months ago that Sekou Doumbouya, who is still only 20, is the longest-tenured Pistons player. He appeared only briefly in Summer League in 2019, when he was the youngest player in the draft, due to a hamstring injury and lost last summer due to the pandemic.

    A player still shy of his 21st birthday shouldn’t logically be facing a career crossroads, but Doumbouya looks around and understands nothing is guaranteed.

    “It feels special,” he says of his status, but “at the same time, you’re like, what’s next? What’s next for me, especially? But still a Detroit Pistons. I’m still playing for the team. Whatever happens, happens. It’s a business.”

    A strong Summer League could help Doumbouya carry some momentum into training camp, where he’ll slot in behind Jerami Grant on the depth chart but compete for minutes with a host of others as Casey is increasingly inclined to play position-less basketball and find five who fit.

  • Garza’s future – The early returns on Luka Garza are encouraging. Dwane Casey seemed genuinely enthused about the national college Player of the Year’s NBA future based on the first few days of Summer League practices. The 3-point shot is legitimate and Casey sees a high IQ player who’s going to figure out the speed and quickness issues that saw him still available to the Pistons with the 52nd pick.

    Waiving Tyler Cook and Deividas Sirvydis last week opened up the possibility of Garza sticking as opposed to getting stashed overseas, though the presence of Isaiah Stewart – who’ll miss Summer League as he continues to get past the relatively minor ankle injury suffered last month during his USA Basketball Select Team stint – plus Jahlil Okafor and another veteran center coming via free agency crowds the depth chart at his position. And if there’s one spot on the roster where the position means something, it’s here. Garza isn’t a candidate to play down a position.

    Garza could be in line for a two-way contract, though, where he’d likely see a heavy dose of G League time with the Motor City Cruise, who debut this fall in a new arena going up on the campus of Wayne State.