The rookie wall is less often an impermeable barrier than it is a series of hurdles. A month ago, Jaden Ivey shook his head as he grappled with the reality he’d played a full college season already and still had 50 games to play.
Ivey is still a lump of clay – an extraordinarily gifted and promising lump – but there are a handful of moments in every game where he reminds everyone why NBA talent evaluators were eager for his arrival and why the Pistons felt a little giddy on draft night when Ivey was available to them with the fifth pick.
Mixed among that handful of moments are an occasion or two when Ivey finds himself in mid-air with no desirable outcomes likely. Nothing about that comes as a surprise to the Pistons, who understood Ivey would need time to harness his otherworldly speed and athleticism – time to figure out how to play NBA basketball.
But they’ll bet on him every chance they get because what Dwane Casey came to quickly learn about Ivey is his intent is pure.
“For a young kid, he’s a competitor,” Casey said after Sunday’s loss to New York, a game the Pistons made competitive despite again lining up with only one big man, Isaiah Stewart. “He has the ability to go by people and bend the defense. He’s only going to get better at it. His speed and competitive edge gave us a little juice in the fourth quarter.”
Ivey’s a blur with the ball in his hands, but the Pistons figured they’d be able to break him in gently with Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes serving as primary ballhandlers for the first and second units. Then Cunningham went down after 12 games with a season-ending shin injury. Ivey, who played almost exclusively off the ball at Purdue and as a prospect before that, suddenly finds himself facing a battery of decisions he’s never confronted – and doing it not against college competition, where his athletic edge was exponential, but in the thick of the best league in the world.
And doing it while cramming in a season and a half’s worth of college games into three months – with nearly three more still to go.
“I’m still feeling it,” he said. “I fee like I’ve played more games than I have ever, for real, in my lifetime. Back to backs. You play a physical game one day and you’ve got to wake up the next morning and get ready for a game. Getting used to that. Most important, I just love playing basketball.”
That’s a trait the Pistons came to learn about Ivey early on, before training camp convened. Ivey is always among the last few stragglers to exit the practice floor, getting up 3-point shots with assistant coach Rex Kalamian and working to exhaustion at developing a feel for the runners and floaters and mid-range jump shots to further weaponize the speed that makes it easy for Ivey to get past the first wave of defense.
“I wake up with a positive attitude, ready to get to work,” Ivey said. “I’ve been enjoying my rookie season with some great teammates and great coaches. There’s so much growth I have left. I feel like I’ve made some growth this past year and these past couple of weeks, just going to stick with it and stick with what the coaches say and just keep learning every single day.”
There are clear signs Ivey is processing information and improving. His assist totals are trending up. In 35 games through December, Ivey averaged 4.1 assists. In eight January games, that’s up to 5.3. In last week’s win over Minnesota, Ivey logged eight assists against two turnovers while scoring 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting. He’s had at least five assists in five of the last six games and six or more four times. Ivey might not yet be a fully refined playmaker, but he’s got the spirit of one.
“When you assist your teammates, you celebrate it,” he said. “I love feeding them and getting them buckets. I like seeing them score the ball. Just keep doing that and having that mindset to have everybody else involved before themselves makes it better.”
Ivey’s averages of 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists not only puts him among the rookie leaders but among Pistons royalty. Here is the list of Pistons rookies who’ve averaged 15-4-4: Dave Bing, Grant Hill, Cade Cunningham.
As he refines that mid-range game he never needed before getting to the NBA and improves his 3-point shooting, Ivey’s elite speed and athleticism will be even more vexing for defenders.
“He’s going to set up the rest of his game once he gets that down pat consistently,” Casey said of Ivey’s 3-point shot, which he’s hitting at 32.4 percent so far, slightly ahead of where Cunningham was (.314) as a rookie. “High 30s, he’ll be hard to deal with. Once he gets his feet set, it’s pretty consistent right now. This next summer is going to be huge for him. That’s going to set up everything else for him.”
The Pistons have seen enough from Ivey to know he won’t fail for lack of will or work. Whatever hurdles appear before him, he’s tackled head on.
“As a rookie, kind of asking everybody what’s next and just taking from everybody and learning,” Ivey said. “That’s all I can every night, bring my energy, keep fighting and I feel like I do a good job of that. I’ve just got to stick with it.”