Preseason primer: Cunningham’s ankle likely to hold him out of Pistons opener, Casey says
After playing only a small sliver of last season with any fans allowed inside Little Caesars Arena – never reaching even four figures, let alone five – whatever percentage of the Pistons home that gets filled for Wednesday’s preseason opener will feel like a full-throated sellout throng.
But it might be a little less boisterous than it would have been if No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, as expected, was set to make his home debut in a Pistons uniform.
Cunningham, alas, almost certainly won’t play as he remains out with an ankle injury suffered early in training camp last week.
“He still has some fluid on his ankle,” Dwane Casey said after Tuesday’s practice ahead of San Antonio’s arrival for the preseason opener, a 7 p.m. tipoff that will be televised on Bally Sports Detroit. “We’re going to be cautious. It’s just disappointing because of the fact this time is really to integrate him and get him going.”
Frank Jackson, who also suffered an ankle injury during practice last week, is another who’s unlikely to suit up for the opener. The injuries to two perimeter players open minutes for others, but it all serves to complicate Casey’s decision-making process.
Though Casey hasn’t revealed his starting lineup, based on the clues dropped throughout the first week of camp it seemed likely Cunningham and Killian Hayes, the seventh pick in 2020’s draft, would line up as the starting backcourt. Frank Jackson was in a three-way battle with Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo for the two wing spots on the second unit.
“We had a grueling week, but all the X-rays are clean,” Casey said of Cunningham and Jackson’s ankle issues. “One thing about it, Josh and Hami have done an excellent job. It’s competition for those positions.”
The Pistons hoped to use preseason games to accelerate the chemistry of Cunningham and Hayes in addition to informing Casey’s decision-making on lineup fits and rotation questions. But, don’t forget, before camp came three weeks of voluntary team workouts that gave everyone a chance to gain some familiarity with the newcomers – which starts off as a significantly smaller cohort than last season when the Pistons had a mere four holdovers from the previous season.
“We need some outside competition,” Casey said. “That’s going to tell us a lot. San Antonio scored a lot of points last night (as the Spurs opened with a 111-85 home win over Utah). It’s going to be good competition for our defense to see where our defense is, for our offense to see if we can play fast, play with pace. I’ll have a better feel, but from where we’re going to where we were last year, we’re a long step ahead of where we were. One is continuity, familiarity. But the intensity, the hard play, we are a step ahead of where we were.”
In addition to Cunningham and Frank Jackson, the Pistons won’t have rookies Isaiah Livers and Chris Smith, the latter on a two-way contract, as they continue to rehabilitate pre-draft injuries. Livers expects to be cleared by Nov. 1 after undergoing foot surgery last spring and Smith is a few months from being cleared after suffering a torn ACL in January of his UCLA season.
Casey says he’ll play everybody else at some point of the preseason, though he doesn’t expect to push anyone’s minutes out of the 20s in the opener.
“We want to get a look at everyone to see what they need, where they are, where we are,” Casey said. “We’re down numbers with Frank out, with Cade out – Livers is out. We’re really down some numbers. It’ll be a great opportunity for a young man like (Jamorko) Pickett to get in.”