Summer League means different things to different franchises. For teams with bloated cap sheets and no mechanisms to add players other than minimum exceptions, it’s a bona fide NBA casting call.
For franchises in transition like the Pistons, it’s close to 180 degrees from that. There will be very real overlap between the Pistons Summer League roster and the team’s 2022-23 regular-season roster, so what started at the Pistons Performance Center over the holiday weekend and continues at mid-week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s Summer League opener is basically prelude to training camp.
It remains to be seen how much Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes actually play in Summer League games – the over/under would probably fall at 1½ and you might be wise to bet the under – but the games aren’t at the heart of the value Dwane Casey sees in assembling the guts of his young team for a few weeks in July.
“This is, for me, far more important than the games,” Casey said of the practices and the getting-to-know-you function of team activity. “Because now we can work on stuff that we’re going to do next year, reiterate things we did last year. This is an opportunity for us to get some extra work in legally for the upcoming season.”
It’s conceivable the Pistons will have eight or more rotation players at some point of 2021-22 in Las Vegas with the Summer League team. In addition to Cunningham, Bey, Stewart and Hayes, add Saben Lee and Isaiah Livers, who finished his rookie season with a flourish after recovering from foot surgery; first-round picks Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, once the latter is cleared to join the group after the completion of the larger trade that granted the Pistons his draft rights; and Braxton Key, who impressed after joining the Pistons in early April on a 10-day contract and was signed to a two-way deal.
Here’s a look at a Summer League checklist of items of interest for Pistons fans:
Sparks from Ivey – There will be a learning curve for the Purdue rookie, taken with the No. 5 pick in last month’s draft. He’ll need repetitions – far more than he’ll possibly have under his belt at any point during the Pistons stay in Las Vegas – to find the sweet spot in his fit next to Cunningham and within the system as a whole.
But flash plays at both ends built off of the electric athleticism that thrust Ivey to the front of his draft class will go a long way toward giving the Pistons a better idea of how he can make an impact while pulling himself up to speed on the finer points of the NBA game.
“I think the biggest thing is bonding with my teammates, just building team chemistry and trying to go in and have energy and impact the game in certain ways that I can to help the Pistons win,” he said. “That’s the most important thing in each and every game – just going in to have that dog mindset, for sure.”
Leadership Council – With the trade of leading scorer Jerami Grant to Portland becoming official with the close of the transaction moratorium period, Cunningham and Bey move front and center on many levels for the Pistons. The offense will revolve around them, for certain, but just as important will be how they fill the leadership vacuum and how they carry themselves around teammates who’ll now look to them as tone setters. Summer League is where it starts.
“Cade’s an important piece, but Saddiq’s got a great mind for basketball,” Casey said. “He can be vocal. We’re trying to encourage that and give them that opportunity to be leaders. Cade’s the headline, but it’s also Saddiq’s opportunity, Isaiah’s opportunity, to speak up. Isaiah Livers has a great basketball mind. So we’ve got two or three or four guys that can really speak up and take a step as far as leadership is concerned where that is not just on Cade’s shoulders.”
Stewart has yet to play in Summer League with 2020’s being wiped out by COVID-19 and an ankle injury suffered at USA Basketball camp preventing him from playing last summer. Hayes played his best basketball yet after the All-Star break and building off of that in Summer League would solidify his role going into his third season.
Keep It Simple – Duren was the youngest player drafted, not turning 19 until a month into the NBA regular season, and only a summer 2021 decision to reclassify and enroll at Memphis made him eligible for the 2022 NBA draft. The Pistons will have a deep stable of big men ahead of him, so there shouldn’t be a need for Duren to crack the rotation as a rookie. Early in the season, especially, it probably would be an upset if he isn’t soaking up the majority of minutes at center for the Motor City Cruise.
At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and ridiculous athleticism for his size, Duren won’t have to check off a lot of boxes in order to carve an NBA niche. If he can rebound better than most at both ends, block and alter and dissuade shots consistently around the rim and grow proficient at the art of screening and making himself a lob threat, that will be plenty. Seeing signs in those areas at Summer League will give him a solid foundation to carry into training camp.
The Buddy System – The Pistons wasted no time on draft night in agreeing with Syracuse sniper Buddy Boeheim on a two-way contract. That was a vote of confidence for a player who didn’t appear on most top 100 draft boards, but it speaks to the importance of the one elite tool Boeheim brings to the table: 3-point shooting.
Boeheim, whose relationship with Pistons general manager Troy Weaver and assistant GM and Cruise GM and president Rob Murphy goes back to their days as assistants to longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, Buddy’s dad, shot 36 percent over four years at Syracuse from the 3-point line while taking 56 percent of his shots from the arc against defenses dedicated to taking that shot away from him. He’ll have to show he can defend respectably and be able to make opponents pay for overaggressive closeouts to have a chance and the first hints of that ability will be of interest at Summer League.
Livers Delivers – For a guy who missed almost a full calendar year, Livers didn’t take long to convince Casey he belongs in any discussion of a young Pistons core. Between his March 2021 injury at Michigan and Feb. 27, Livers logged all of five minutes in one November game at Indiana and 62 minutes across four G League games.
Over the last six weeks of the season, Livers – as a rookie shaking off rust and being dropped into the middle of an NBA season – showed he could be an ideal complement to an offense with Cunningham on the trigger given his elite 3-point shooting and overall feel for the game. Livers hit 42 percent from three on high volume – 6.0 attempts per 36 minutes and more than 70 percent of his field-goal attempts.
With Grant’s spot open, opportunity awaits Livers. A solid Summer League could even make him a dark horse candidate to emerge as a starter with Bey assuming Grant’s spot at power forward, where he did some of his best work last season when Grant missed six weeks with a thumb injury.
Polishing Pearls – Given the emphasis the Pistons put on player development, epitomized by the launching of the Motor City Cruise, they’ll use Summer League as a proving ground for undrafted free agents who could possibly warrant an Exhibit 10 contract that essentially means an invitation to training camp and a likely spot on the Cruise roster.
Last year, Jamorko Pickett capitalized on his opportunity and wound up spending the full season on a two-way contract. One to keep an eye on this time around: Kameron McGusty, who spent two years at Oklahoma, a redshirt season at Miami and then three years playing for the Hurricanes. McGusty, 6-foot-5, averaged in double figures in four of his five college seasons. As a Miami senior, he averaged 17.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 34 minutes a game while shooting .476 overall and .355 from three.