When Hamidou Diallo came to the Pistons 18 months ago, amid Troy Weaver’s first season as Pistons general manager, he joined a roster where he immediately and emphatically became the team’s best athlete.
Draft night 2022 has put that honorific in serious jeopardy.
“When you say Jalen and Jaden, those guys can run. They can fly,” Diallo smiled, shaking his head. “It’s going to be exciting. Jalen, a great shot-blocker – he’s caught me a couple of times. Having him protecting the rim and Jaden, a guy that can dribble up and go by anybody, that’s something in itself.”
You can’t solve a rebuilding team’s every need in a single player or a single draft, though landing Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick in 2021 gave Weaver’s restoration project an ample launch pad. He went into the 2022 off-season intent on addressing an obvious roster void and came away with Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, considered by many the two most athletic players in the draft.
“That area – athleticism,” Weaver said when asked what he wanted to add for the season ahead. “I thought we were pretty solid. I think you saw how adding Jalen and Jaden will add to that, make us more explosive, for sure.”
Even among the bell curve of NBA players – all of whom would be grouped on the far right of the public at large – Ivey and Duren stand out for the things they do that others cannot.
Killian Hayes uses the same descriptive – “amazing athlete” – in talking about Duren and Ivey in separate conversations.
“Jaden’s just an amazing athlete,” Hayes said of the Purdue sophomore taken fifth by the Pistons. “We see him at practice, grabbing a rebound, going coast to coast. Very athletic. Great guy, as well.” Duren, he said, has struck him for “his motor. He’s an amazing athlete. You all are going to see a lot of highlights this season.”
The effects of that athleticism are coming into focus as the Pistons go through training camp practices and the stages of integrating their two precocious rookies – Ivey, 20, and Duren, 18 and the youngest player in the NBA as the 13th pick after one season at Memphis.
“With Ivey, it opens up the court. He breaks down the defense,” Dwane Casey said. “You get the defense in rotation, they’ve got to help. He’s getting where he wants to with the ball, but he’s slowing down and making good decisions off the dribble and that’s hard for a rookie. That’s been impressive on his part. Then Duren, protecting the rim. He goes after everything at the rim. He’s a deterrent at the rim and you’ve always got to have that.”
Athleticism on its own doesn’t carry players very far in their NBA careers, which is why it’s worth noting when Casey and his players mention the other things the rookies have put into evidence to make an impression on them. Ivey’s playmaking has opened eyes.
“One skill that he has that hasn’t really been shown is his passing skills,” Casey said. “He’s doing a great job of picking defenses apart.”
Cunningham, who figures to be paired often with Ivey, eventually got around to Ivey’s athleticism but only after ticking off the other things that the rookie has shown him.
“He’ll make it a lot easier for everybody. He has a great feel for the game and he wants to win. That’s something that’s easy to see. He wants to play through his team. He loves to share the ball. All those things are something you love to see in somebody joining the team. His athleticism, his speed, is something that will help us. He brings a different dynamic to our team with his athleticism, his skill set. I’m excited to take the floor with him.”
Duren has displayed a shooting touch on face-up jump shots more advanced than the book on him. And he’s been rebounding at a high level, Casey said.
Veteran Cory Joseph brought up Russell Westbrook as an athletic comparison for Ivey, which puts him in rare company.
“Ivey’s fast, man. Everybody knows that,” he said as training camp was about to start. “He’s a bullet out there on the court. He brings another dynamic as far as pushing the pace, getting into the open court, which we need to do more of. I can see flashes of Westbrook, that fast twitch he has in terms of that change of speed. There’s a lot of guys, but we’ll go with that one for now.”
After a few practices, Joseph saw more of how the two rookies make an impact.
“They’re really athletic. During practice, you can see that. It just brings up the level of play in practice because of their athleticism and speed. Jalen’s blocking ability, you have to think the game more.”
As they continue to make a mark on Pistons practices, the odds they’ll get the chance to similarly affect games ratchets up.
“We definitely wanted to become more athletic,” Weaver said. “And I think we did that with those two young men.”