Hayes, Grant, Cunningham

‘These are the guys we’re building with’ – Why the Pistons made the call to keep the No. 1 picks together as starters

Cade Cunningham is one of 3 20-year-olds and four first- or second-year players who together with Jerami Grant make up the Pistons starting five

At some point over the off-season – some time after the Pistons won the lottery in June and likely before they gathered for Summer League in August – Dwane Casey had made the decision. Two decisions, really.

The Pistons were going to keep their trove of recent No. 1 draft picks – Cade Cunningham this year, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey from last year – together as a unit. And they weren’t going to be protected by coming off the bench.

“It’s called a restore, a rebuild. It wouldn’t be a rebuild if we had veteran guards and veteran wings,” Casey said of coming to the conclusion that the Pistons would start three 20-year-olds – “college sophomores” he calls them – plus Bey, 22, alongside Jerami Grant. “Those are the guys we’re building with, the cornerstone right now. That’s what you go through.”

Even though Cunningham missed the first four games of the season and has now played in four of the nine Pistons games, that five-man unit has logged the most minutes together of any other so far in 2021-22. And the early indications are that they’ve got the physical gifts and mental makeup to enable the Pistons to establish themselves as the hard-edged, defense-first team others rue seeing on the schedule.

Stewart brings the element of physical toughness while playing at an infectious energy level. Hayes and Cunningham have both size and keen instincts that lead to steals and deflections. Bey and Grant are the versatile wing defenders whose ability to switch keys modern NBA defenses. The ingredients are all in order. Now comes the hard part: waiting on the experience that only comes with time and repetitions.

Casey is encouraged but after nearly three decades in the NBA, wants to see a little more before reaching any meaningful conclusions.

“The defensive approach that they have, the ability to switch one through four effectively,” he said of early impressions. “Still, it’s such a small sample size. Cade has only played how many NBA games? Four? It’s very hard to predict or judge even with the data we have, what’s good or what’s working. A little more time.”

But the fact it became clear early in training camp that Casey and general manager Troy Weaver were on board with tying their fortunes to the young core wasn’t lost on those players.

“Like they said, us young guys are the future,” Stewart said Monday. “They’re backing that up by putting us out there, allowing us to go against other teams’ starters every single night. Us being young, I feel like we’re learning so much.”

It wouldn’t have been a shocker if Casey had decided to sprinkle a few rookies in with a more experienced starting lineup – or if he had decided to keep the kids together but bring them off the bench so the bulk of their minutes wouldn’t come against far more established, better players. Ultimately, the decision was made that the best way to speed the process was to go all in and start them.

“That’s the plan. You always learn through adversity,” Casey said. “No one loves winning more than I do. A lot of the growth might not equal wins, but there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That’s what we have to keep in mind. In the meantime, we want to play to win, play to build winning habits. That’s our plan right now. That’s where we are.”

Casey is acutely aware that for players who’ve largely known success at every stop until now, a sudden abundance of failure can have a numbing effect.

“The problem you have is people lose patience,” he said. “That’s something from our coaching staff we preach all the time – growth. ‘You did great here.’ If I walked in and browbeat them on every mistake they made, they would have no confidence. I’m selling sunshine and bubblegum as much as I can. Our goal is to win a championship someday.”

“Anything great doesn’t happen overnight,” Stewart said. “You have to go through these growing pains. You have to go through this process to get where you want to be. It ain’t just going to happen. You have to go through the growing pains and stages where you’re not going to like it, but it is what it is.”