Young bench rewards Casey’s confidence as Pistons pull away to beat Atlanta

When you hear about signs of growth for the two fistfuls of young players stocking the Pistons roster these days but need an example of what that really means, here’s one for you: With a playoff team closing the third quarter on an 8-0 run to pull within seven points, Dwane Casey turned the game over to his bench and was prepared to live with the results.

The Pistons wound up pulling away, riding Frank Jackson’s scoring and a defense that held the Hawks to 19 fourth-quarter points, forcing five turnovers and getting three blocked shots from Isaiah Stewart.

“I was going to live or die with ’em,” Casey said after the 100-86 win over Atlanta, which began the night in a dead heat with the New York Knicks at 34-27 and vying for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. “They went in and did a heck of a job.”

The second unit – including 19-year-old rookies Killian Hayes and Stewart, 20-year-old Sekou Doumbouya and young pros Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, each 22 – outscored Atlanta’s bench 44-22 with Jackson scoring 18 and Diallo 14.

“It’s big time. In this league, you’ve got to have two rotations,” Jackson said. “When we come in and lock in and do our job, we’re really solid. It was good tonight.”

Jackson’s outing was another in a string of them that has moved him solidly onto the radar to join the four rookies Troy Weaver drafted in November as part of the young core.

“I’m so happy with Frank’s growth,” Casey said. “I’m so excited about his growth. Here’s a young man who got cut (by Oklahoma City in December), comes in as a two-way player who has earned every inch of his playing time. He’s special. I know he’s a keeper.”

Jackson was drafted as a 19-year-old after one season at Duke, which makes him a useful barometer for the growth ahead for Hayes and Stewart. Those two will spend their summers applying the lessons they learned from rookie seasons played under the handicap of pandemic-related limitations to figure out how they can be effective scorers someday.

But their toolkits are decidedly advanced on the defensive end already. They entered the game together with four minutes left in Monday’s first quarter and when they left midway through the second, Atlanta had managed 15 points in 10 minutes.

“They’ve been tremendous,” Jackson said of Stewart and Hayes. “They’ve taken a huge jump every game. I credit that to our coaching staff and to our older guys showing the young guys the ropes and even me at times. They’re doing a phenomenal job and I love playing with them.”

“We’re just really young. We’re still learning and that’s definitely a focal point for us,” Diallo said of the second unit’s defensive performance. “We’re not going to be the team that comes in every night and scores more than our opponents, but we can stop guys and we feel confident on that end. We feel that’s something we can control.”

Stewart, a 58 percent shooter, made just 2 of 6 shots against Atlanta but grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked four shots and made the paint a most inhospitable place in general for the Hawks during his 27 minutes. Hayes hit just 1 of 5 shots, but picked up five assists, grabbed four rebounds and registered three steals in his 23 minutes.

“I’ve always said Killian is ahead on the defensive side of the ball more so than on offense,” Casey said. “It’s very unusual. Usually, it’s the other way around. Really happy with his defensive play tonight.”

Jackson hit a couple of big 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to take the lead back to double digits and the bench unit’s defensive tenacity was enough to carry the day after that. Casey never had to reconsider his determination to live or die with his young bench.

“I feel like the good thing about this team, from top to bottom, we can all play and all finish games,” Diallo said. “Just because they went on a little run doesn’t mean we pressed the panic button. I feel like the coaches have our backs and have confidence in us to go out there and finish the game. And that’s what we did.”