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DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 1: Jamorko Pickett #24 of the Detroit Pistons grabs the rebound during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on January 1, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Opportunity knocks for Pistons G Leaguers – and Casey coaches ’em up

The task facing Dwane Casey was sort of like the TV shows where two celebrity chefs are told to create something using only items currently in somebody else’s refrigerator. Well, it was half like that. Casey was improvising with ingredients not of his choosing against two of the NBA’s best coaches, each of whom was in their own well-stocked kitchens.

It’s not what he’d opt to do for the rest of his coaching career, but there was also something irresistibly challenging for Casey in taking a roster full of G League call-ups and figuring it out on the fly.

“It was fun in the fact that every day was like training camp, going back to teaching,” Casey said the day after moving chess pieces around well enough to give the Pistons a chance against Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. “To see it come to fruition last night, to have that many new guys and trying to execute, it was a credit to those guys. I can only imagine – guys last week playing in the G League and now up with us and executing and running and doing things on the fly.”

The Pistons had three players available to Casey playing on standard NBA contracts in Saturday’s 117-116 overtime win over the Spurs, who were missing a few familiar faces but had no 10-day emergency players in uniform. Only one of them, Saddiq Bey, was a starter. Another, rookie,Luka Garza, was drafted after 51 others. When Casey went to his bench in the first half, the first two he waved in – Micah Potter and Jaysean Paige – were making their NBA debuts. San Antonio took a 17-point lead early in the second quarter. In the second half, Casey used different combinations in an attempt to find different results.

Casey went with Deividas Sirvydis instead of Paige or Jamorko Pickett. He used his undersized G League point guards, Derrick Walton Jr. and Justin Robinson, as a tandem to great effect after halftime instead of staggering them as he’d done in the first half. The rotation got tightened a little further. It was coaching in real time, using games to experiment with lineup combinations.

“No question,” Casey said. “Sirvydis came in in the second half. I thought we could use his shooting and he has a high basketball IQ. I thought he got two or three really big rebounds when we were making that run to come back. We were trying to get a feel too what five stuck.”

As hard as Casey coached to win, he was at the same time cognizant of the thrill for all eight G League additions the Pistons have made in less than two weeks for the opportunity and especially for the three among them who’d never stepped on an NBA court – Potter, Paige and Trayvon Palmer, who debuted three nights earlier against New York.

“I told them today, it was a credit to them,” Casey said. “They showed 29 other teams. I had scouts calling about different players. That’s what it’s about – giving guys an opportunity to step in and step out.”

No one seized the opportunity more appreciatively than Walton, a Detroit native who played four years at Michigan before going undrafted in 2017. Since, he’s stuck with three NBA teams while also playing internationally and in the G League. Until last week, he was the starting point guard for the Motor City Cruise, the first-year Pistons G League affiliate. His pass between the legs of San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl to Bey set up Bey’s game-winning triple with 1.9 seconds left Saturday night.

“I tell my mom every day, since I’ve been playing I’ve always needed MapQuest,” Walton said about navigating in unfamiliar locales. “(Now) I’m hopping on (Interstate) 75. It doesn’t even feel real. I’m eating at spots I’ve eaten my entire life. I’m going to malls I’m used to. I’m going home to my dog. It’s surreal, but it’s a blessing. I just want to take advantage of it. I’ve just got to keep proving myself. I want to be part of something that I’ve grown up watching.”

The G League guys aren’t the only players for whom opportunity has dramatically changed. Hamidou Diallo, who began the season outside the rotation, has averaged 31 points over his last three games. Bey has been elevated to No. 1 scoring option in the absence of players like Jerami Grant, Cade Cunningham and Kelly Olynyk. Casey’s next juggling act will be figuring out how to maximize their contributions once the Pistons begin welcoming those players back into the mix.

“That’s going to be the trick,” he said. “Somebody’s got to score in the last few games and Saddiq did a great job. Now our challenge as a coaching staff and as a team is everyone fitting their role. But it should give guys a lot of confidence to go out and perform. Hopefully, it goes seamlessly.”