The tears of joy Jaden Ivey gushed still dampened his bespoke NBA draft suit when Troy Weaver challenged him to use the athleticism that so intrigued all who watched him at Purdue at the defensive end of the floor, too.
He’s come to Pistons minicamp ahead of Summer League in Las Vegas this week determined to do just that.
“He made one play yesterday where he went over – first, he fell down – then he went and helped on one side of the floor,” said Dwane Casey, whose roots in basketball are sunk deep into the defensive end of the court, “and then he went to the other side of the floor and got a steal just with how quick he is.”
The overwhelming majority of speculation on Ivey’s impact with the Pistons focused on his offensive fit with Cade Cunningham – how his speed would be accentuated as a complement to Cunningham’s surgical pace, how the greater spacing of NBA offenses would open the floor for Ivey, whether the 10 percentage point spike in Ivey’s 3-point shooting from freshman to sophomore was a reliable guidepost for his future.
But Ivey’s size, speed, length and athleticism give him the toolkit to make an impact at both ends and perhaps most immediately on defense.
“He can pick up the quick guards, the beep-beep guards,” Casey said. “I anticipate us doing a lot of switching. He’s big enough, strong enough to be able to switch. He’s not a finished product with his body, either. He’ll grow into that in the weight room. He’s got a bright future with us.”
Ivey is ideally suited to defend point guards, which gives Casey tremendous lineup flexibility on units built around Cunningham as primary playmaker. He comes to the Pistons comfortable with a role as Cunningham’s sidekick and knows his ability to compete defensively at a level commensurate with his athletic ability is key to making the pairing work.
“Be an impact defender. That’s what I’m working on,” he said. “In practice, I feel like I’m being really aggressive – just that Pistons mindset, that Bad Boys mindset. You’ve got to go out there every day and impact on the defensive end and I feel like I’ve really improved in that aspect when I got here.”
Just as Ivey’s athleticism will need to be harnessed on offense as he finds his niche, so too will there be challenges and learning curves defensively. All of that was on display in the play that caught Casey’s eye from Saturday’s initial minicamp practice.
“First mistake, don’t gamble in the backcourt and fall down,” Casey said. “But he made up for it, which I always say, ‘I don’t care if you make a mistake, make it hard’ – and he did, with his speed.”
That’s the weapon that Casey already expects is going to give the Pistons another gear in their offense.
“His speed is elite,” Casey said. “Like any younger player, he’s got to learn how to change gear and understand when there’s a traffic jam, do I go in there 100 miles an hour or do I slow up and change speed? Which is a good problem to have, because that means he’s got elite speed. You can just see the difference in the speed of our practices with him pushing the ball up the floor.”
“I think he’s going to give us a huge burst,” said Jordan Brink, who’ll shift from his role as player development coach on Casey’s staff to head coach of the Summer League team. “Pair him alongside Cade and I think you’ve got two dynamic guards and dynamic in different ways.”
Brink is also the coach working directly with Ivey for individual workouts, picking him up at the hotel where he’s temporarily housed and delivering him to his new home, the Pistons Performance Center.
“He’s taken me in,” Ivey said. “I’ve got to give props to Jordan. I just thank him for getting up early and helping me work on my game.”
The joy that burst from Ivey on draft night – stemming from his family history that includes grandfather James Hunter’s career with the Lions, his mother Niele Ivey’s stint with the Detroit Shock and his father, Javin Hunter, growing up here and starring in football and basketball at Detroit Country Day – has been validated so far with the embrace he’s received from Pistons fans and the bond he’s already forming with his new teammates.
“I see myself fitting in well,” Ivey said. “I feel like we’re connected. In the first two days, I feel like we all are connected as a group and we’re talking to each other and just building that team chemistry. I love these guys already.”