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With Grant, Olynyk returns near, Pistons hope to maintain momentum

The Pistons have played without Jerami Grant for seven weeks and without Kelly Olynyk, save for a two-game cameo earlier this month, for 12. They’ll recognize the faces when they return within days, but make no mistake – they’re coming back to a different team.

The losses of their two most accomplished veterans and the central characters on both Dwane Casey’s first and second units set off a domino effect that rippled through virtually the entire roster. If the Pistons were amid a playoff drive, their absences would have been potentially catastrophic. Even for a team in full-blown development mode, as the Pistons are, losing players who serve as grounding agents was nothing Casey would have ever invited.

But it wasn’t without upside. Saddiq Bey slid into Grant’s spot at power forward, essentially inherited his role as primary scoring option and flourished. Cade Cunningham assumed Grant’s role as late-clock creator when plays broke down and took enormous strides. Trey Lyles took over Olynyk’s spot at center and put together the best stretch of his seven-year career.

Now Casey will try to thread the needle upon Grant and Olynyk’s return. Without losing sight of what remains the organizational mission for the season – individual player development – it’s on Casey and his staff to incorporate the two veteran lynchpins back into the mix without stifling the growth of young players just growing familiar with broader roles.

“It’s going to be an adjustment,” Casey admitted Monday. “It affects a lot of people. To sit here and try to blow it aside, it’s real.”

Since Grant went down with a Dec. 10 thumb injury that required surgery, Bey is averaging 19.1 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 42.4 percent from the field, 36.0 percent from three and 88.9 from the line. Cunningham’s numbers over that time: 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 41.9, 36.4 and 86.7. Lyles is at 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds. Frank Jackson has emerged as a consistent scoring threat whose shooting puts him in the mix to close games.

“It’s a development piece,” Casey said. “Guys have gone in and gotten better, gotten confidence.”

Retaining that confidence and playing with the same assertiveness while maintaining efficiency with more limited opportunity is a tricky path to navigate.

The trickle-down effect means Hamidou Diallo will go back to coming off the bench, which in turn will affect Rodney McGruder. It means Lyles will go back to playing primarily power forward behind Grant instead of center, where his ability to pump fake and drive by bigger defenders has allowed him to become a frequent visitor to the foul line, averaging 5.1 free throws in 23 minutes a game since Grant’s injury. Josh Jackson, Saben Lee and McGruder have to adjust to not knowing if or when their name gets called.

Cory Joseph, elevated to the starting lineup when Killian Hayes missed time earlier this month with a hip contusion in an arrangement Casey plans to continue exploring, remembers how he approached that situation when he was a young player making his way on a veteran San Antonio Spurs roster.

“This is an opportunity – that’s how I looked at it,” he said. “Any opportunity in the NBA is a blessing. You trust in your training and you put your best foot forward. If you look at it as, ‘I’m not going to get a lot of opportunity; I’ve got to go out there and make sure I do well,’ that’s usually when you don’t do well. You’re putting that extra pressure on yourself.”

Casey will be mindful of putting players in the best possible situations to succeed, but ultimately it comes down to what’s best for the Pistons and how players perform under competitive pressure.

“It creates competition and leverage,” he said. “I would not hesitate to put Rodney is or Josh or Hami because of what they’ve done since those guys have been out. We’re excited about having Jerami and Kelly back, but the key thing is human nature. We want to make sure guys stay ready.”