(Editor’s note: As the 2022-23 season approaches, Pistons.com will examine the key storylines for the season ahead and beyond. Today: Can Isaiah Livers seize the opportunity created by the trade of Jerami Grant and fill a need for a wing shooter with size and two-way potential?)
Derrick Rose was 30 years old and coming off a bounce-back year at Minnesota when the Pistons, in need of a scorer to complement Blake Griffin for a team that made the playoffs in Dwane Casey’s first season, signed the former MVP to a reported bargain deal of two years and $15 million.
Rose served the Pistons admirably in his 1½ seasons, but the dividends of that signing could far outstrip Rose’s tenure in Detroit. How that plays out now rests on where Isaiah Livers’ career goes from here.
Livers is the remnant of the February 2021 trade that saw the Pistons send Rose to New York. The return was Dennis Smith, the ninth pick of the 2017 draft by Dallas who’d fallen out of the Knicks rotation, and Charlotte’s second-round pick in that summer’s draft.
The 42nd pick is historically of spotty value, so it was no more than a coin flip that the Pistons would get any long-term bang for the buck from that trade when that’s where Charlotte’s pick settled. Livers, Michigan’s 2017 Mr. Basketball at Kalamazoo Central, spent four years at Michigan – recruited by John Beilein, now a key figure in Pistons player development – and saw his college career end with a foot injury in March 2021 with the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament.
That injury, which would limit him to 19 games as a rookie, probably cost Livers several draft spots, though it’s impossible to know with any certainty which teams picking ahead of the Pistons might have been won over by Livers had he been able to work out for them that spring.
He won over the Pistons without the workout. There was ample evidence of what Livers brought to the table from his 119 college games. He could shoot, clearly, hitting 41 percent of his career 3-point attempts, he had ideal size at 6-foot-7 on a sturdy frame for a wing player and there wasn’t the hint of a red flag on character issues. Livers was known as a high IQ player and a great teammate at Michigan. But as often happens with older college players, the perception of a limited ceiling and average athleticism deflated Livers’ draft stock.
Fourteen months after his draft night, Livers will enter Pistons training camp prepared to seize a gaping opportunity to join a young core that starts with Cade Cunningham and includes 11 players 24 or younger. Strangely, Livers is the oldest of that bunch – three days older than Hamidou Diallo, eight months older than Marvin Bagley III and 13 months older than Kevin Knox, all of whom are entering their fifth seasons after spending a year in college.
Livers credits his four years at Michigan with his ability to hit the ground running in the NBA last spring when he was cleared to go after fully recovering from foot surgery. It’s not easy for vested veterans to get dropped into the lineup in the season’s 61st game, as Livers was in late February, let alone a rookie. But Livers never appeared overwhelmed, immediately proving an effective 3-point shooter, a reliable defender and a low-turnover player.
“That aspect allowed me to grow,” Livers said over the summer of his ability to absorb experiences even as he was in street clothes and rehabilitating. “I didn’t get to play a lot, but I got to watch a lot. That was critical, just watching the small mistakes. I knew when I got in, I’ve seen it all. I know the NBA talk, I know the plays and coach Casey trusts me like a veteran. So I’m going to go out there and play like one.”
To be sure, Casey began endorsing Livers’ NBA future even before he was cleared to play, impressed by his observational and communication skills and intrigued by his shooting/size combination.
Add it all up, and Livers has to be regarded as a serious dark horse candidate to fill the void in the starting lineup created by the trade of Jerami Grant to Portland, beginning a chain of transactions that resulted in general manager Troy Weaver maneuvering on draft night to pick up a second lottery pick and use it to land 18-year-old big man Jalen Duren, compared by Casey to a young Shawn Kemp, with the 13th pick.
“As soon as I saw Jerami was moving on to Portland – which, I love him; he taught me a lot just to get ready for the NBA season while I was hurt – oh, yeah, as a competitor my eyes are open,” Livers said. “Casey knows. Troy knows. With the work I put in and what I want my career to be like, I’m looking to play 10, 15-plus years, so of course my eyes are definitely set on that spot and the minutes.”
Livers will vie with a long list of candidates for the spot Grant vacates. Diallo, Bagley, trade addition Alec Burks and Kelly Olynyk all bring helpful traits. If the Pistons are encouraged enough by Isaiah Stewart’s Summer League turn at power forward to consider more of him at that spot, then there’s room for Nerlens Noel or even Duren to enter the mix.
But perhaps no candidate leaves the Pistons with fewer vulnerabilities in the lineup than Livers if he plays to the high end of his and the organization’s expectations. Adding a 40 percent 3-point shooter to go with Saddiq Bey would provide Cade Cunningham the space to exploit his creative genius as a playmaker and open up driving lanes for rookie Jaden Ivey’s explosive athleticism to be maximized. Livers’ defensive versatility would accommodate Casey’s desire to switch at will.
Livers hit 42 percent from three in his 19-game rookie season, averaging 20 minutes a game and taking 71 percent of his shots from the arc. Livers has confidence in showing off other areas of his game, but he’ll stay in whatever lane Casey assigns until asked to do more. He drew high marks with the Summer League roster for his defensive communication skills and leadership, further encouraging the Pistons for his place in their future. One of Livers’ great appeals is that he fits with so many different lineup combinations. That, ultimately, might result in him winning a job in the starting lineup as soon as this season.