(Editor’s note: As the 2022-23 season approaches, Pistons.com will examine the key storylines for the season ahead and beyond. Today: Can the Pistons get a breakout season from one or more of three lottery picks, two of them picked by other franchises, still looking to firmly establish themselves?)
As an LSU sophomore, Shaquille O’Neal averaged 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds a game. He decided to come back for his junior season. He would have almost certainly been the No. 1 pick in the 1990 draft, after his freshman season, and instead spent two more years in college.
So imagine the mindset of lesser players back then if O’Neal – as easy to project to NBA stardom as any player of the last 40 years – decided the wiser course was to spend three seasons playing among age-group peers as an amateur. That’s another way of saying it’s infinitely more difficult to get it right even at the top of the NBA draft today than it was a generation or two ago when most players entered the league at 22 or older.
In a perfect world, players would be fully formed by the time their four-year rookie scale contracts as first-round NBA draft picks expired. But in the world that exists as we know it, that’s not always – or even frequently – the way it plays out. And so the Pistons, as a team somewhere in the middle of general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration project, are willing to wait on players who’d exhausted the supply of patience from other franchises on different timelines.
If Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart are at the heart of the young core Weaver has assembled in two-plus years on the job, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren – based on draft status and Summer League evidence of breathtaking athleticism and potential – are poised to join them in their rookie seasons.
Beyond that, the 2022-23 season sets up as a proving ground for others to force their way into the club. At the forefront of that group are three recent lottery picks still looking to establish a firm foothold in the NBA – Marvin Bagley III and Kevin Knox from the 2018 draft and Killian Hayes from the 2020 draft.
Bagley was the second pick and Knox the ninth in 2018, Bagley taken by Sacramento and Knox by New York. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs in 15 years. The Knicks have made six playoff appearances this century and have one series win. Patience was in short supply in both cities and judgments on both players seemed hardened before they turned 20.
The Pistons acquired Bagley at the February trade deadline, liked what they saw in an 18-game trial to end the 2021-22 season and agreed to a reported three-year, $37 million deal in July – a salary that suggests the Pistons see a prominent role ahead for a player who won’t turn 24 until late in the coming season.
Dwane Casey will have a challenge on his hands in figuring out a coherent frontcourt rotation that properly balances first and second units while giving the Pistons enough perimeter firepower. Bagley’s biggest contribution offensively last season was providing a vertical threat the Pistons otherwise lacked, serving as a lob target for Cunningham and Hayes. That’s something the 18-year-old Duren, every bit as long and even more athletic, can also provide eventually.
Establishing himself as a credible 3-point shooter would go a long way toward unlocking the potential Bagley displayed as a Duke freshman, when he averaged 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, enough to get him drafted ahead of the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Bagley is a career 29 percent 3-point shooter on relatively low volume; 18 percent of his career shot attempts are triples. Bagley has split time almost equally between center and power forward in the NBA and he checks off a lot of boxes for competency but has yet to establish one or two areas to elevate himself to the levels predicted for him.
The Pistons have plenty of other options – Stewart and Duren plus veterans Kelly Olynyk and Nerlens Noel – but Bagley has landed in the best position he’s had yet in the NBA to thrive.
The same could be said for Knox, who like Bagley found himself in short order playing for a different front-office regime than the one that drafted him. When the Knicks brought in Tom Thibodeau and signed several veteran free agents after Knox’s second season, the handwriting was on the wall. Atlanta was in no position to afford Knox a second chance when he was routed there last season in a deal that was mostly about off-loading Cam Reddish for a future draft pick.
Knox is even younger than Bagley, turning 23 only in August. The Knicks drafted him as an 18-year-old and his best season in the New York glare came as a rookie when he started 57 games and averaged 12.8 points while hitting a respectable 34 percent of his 3-point shots on high volume (40 percent of attempts). There’s some off-the-dribble potential with Knox and he’s improved defensively since entering the league. But his best chance to work his way into the rotation and eventually the Pistons future is to establish himself as a dangerous catch-and-shoot 3-point threat who isn’t error-prone or unreliable.
The fact Hayes has been unable to gather momentum two years into his NBA career might be disappointing but it shouldn’t be surprising given the obstacles he’s confronted. The seventh pick in 2020, Hayes missed two months with a hip injury of a rookie season already compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the pre-draft and off-season programs.
He’s got an optimal NBA body for a point guard and upper-tier vision and passing skills. He’s already shown he’s capable of being a top-notch defender. That’s a considerable starting point. If he can gain traction at either end as a scorer – either improving from his career 27 percent 3-point mark or becoming a more efficient and dangerous scorer and playmaker in penetration – then the package might come together pretty quickly for Hayes.
He seemed to gain some confidence and momentum in the second half last season when Casey moved him to the bench where he could have more of a chance with the ball in his hands than he did playing at Cunningham’s side. That’s likely his role to start year three, though Casey’s affinity for fielding multiple-guard lineups will give Hayes ample opportunity to carve a significant niche even on a team with Cunningham and Ivey as cornerstones of the future.
The Pistons have a history of figuring out how to utilize three standout guards as title banners from 1989 and ’90 when Vinnie Johnson thrived despite the presence of Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars would attest.
It would be a problem they’d gladly encounter this season, just as they would be thrilled to find a place for Marvin Bagley III in a crowded frontcourt or making way for Kevin Knox in the wing mix.