Isaiah Livers is ready to rise up in second season with Pistons

Isaiah Livers is ready to rise up in second season with Pistons

In March 2021, Isaiah Livers was at the heart of perhaps his strongest year at the University of Michigan, preparing for a conference tournament and March Madness run that would catapult his NBA Draft stock heading into June. 

Unfortunately, his senior campaign ended prematurely when he broke his foot in the team’s Big Ten Tournament opener against the Indiana Hoosiers. After four seasons of development and hard work, Livers’ collegiate career was in the rearview mirror.

Following the Wolverines’ defeat to the upset-minded Bruins, Livers began his rehab and moved on to the pre-draft process. By late June, at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, he was out of his walking boot and, slowly but surely, getting back to the grind. A little over a month later, the Detroit Pistons selected Livers with the No. 42 overall pick.

Sometimes, the most difficult aspect of coming back from a significant injury isn’t a physical battle. It’s also an uphill struggle with the mind — something that Livers learned right away, yet didn’t dwell on.

“It's tough for anybody to take the game away. You love the game and it gets taken away for almost a year. Like, that's hard. That's a hard pill to swallow,” Livers told Basketball News in a phone interview, noting that his development coach Reg Butler, mentor Damon Allison and father Mo were with him every step of the way.

“I’d say my peers helped me through the mental side. Things naturally get into a dark place. Without touching a basketball... I can't go two days without touching a basketball. That's really hard to do. So once I had to be asked to do a year, I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta do this for my body.’”

One of the loudest voices that uplifted Livers was his best friend and former college backcourt mate, Jordan Poole. 

“We stick together. We talk a lot. He really helped me when I first entered the rehab process,” Livers said of Poole. ”He gave me little tips. He heard about Damian Lillard when he had his foot issue. He couldn't move around at all. All he was doing was dribbling around and just making sure his handles were tight. I tried to do that every day possible. So just little stuff like that. You know, he's just always gonna be in my life for sure. I respect that man."

Former Michigan head coach and current Pistons senior player development advisor John Beilein applauds Livers’ attitude toward the get-back.

“I think his approach to his injury was outstanding, that it wasn't, ‘Woe is me.’ It was, ‘Alright, I gotta get this fixed,’” Beilein told Basketball News. “And we have a great training staff at Michigan and they were very, very patient in waiting for him to get fully healed, for the bone to get fully healed. So as a result, it gave him time to really reflect on the game a lot. 

“But a lot of guys either hurry back, or, they wouldn't take the therapy seriously, and then they're back into the injury bug again. Isaiah was a pro, like a 10-year veteran. He wanted to get back, he pushed himself to get back, but he trusted others in that process.”

Livers admitted that the most crucial part of his rehab was staying in shape. That started with cleaning up his diet and cutting out bad foods. However, the kicker was feverishly riding a Peloton, always breaking a sweat and biking to avoid gaining weight.

“Honestly, I think I did a pretty good job,” Livers said. “Coming back to the season, it wasn't like I needed two weeks to get in shape. I was already in shape. So I was sitting there ready.”

Livers played 19 games for the Pistons in his first year, receiving essentially all of his playing time post-All-Star break and starting each of the team’s final five contests. He scored in double figures in three of those games, and recorded a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double in his first career NBA start. He stood out with a 50% perimeter clip during that stretch and nailed 27-of-64 three-point attempts on the season (42.2%).

"I thought that I did what I needed to do,” Livers said of his abbreviated rookie campaign. “Coach [Dwane] Casey sat me down at the beginning of the year. He knew what I could do. He knew my shooting ability. But the one thing he didn't know about was my defensive intelligence. I don't think he knew I was going to catch on so quickly.”

Whether it’s Cade Cunningham’s eye-popping flashes of superstardom or Saddiq Bey’s spectacular scoring outbursts or a motivated-and-returning Marvin Bagley III or a dynamic top-five rookie in Jaden Ivey, there are plenty of reasons to be excited if you’re a Pistons fan. 

Between some media and fans — and perhaps respected minds around the NBA — Detroit is being circled as a sneaky squad in 2022-23, a la the Cleveland Cavaliers of last year, for example. Though unattentive to the outside noise, Livers relays that the team has had talks this offseason with general manager Troy Weaver and among themselves about the mindset and work everybody will have to put in to make a jump. As a young core, they’re all eager to grow and learn together.

“It's honestly fun. It's like, you have nothing to lose...” Livers said. “You just go out there, have fun and just let it develop. You know how if you put a bunch of work in, the sky’s the limit. So we're all excited. Can't wait. I love what everybody brings to the table. Everybody has their own unique skill set to bring to the table."

Playing alongside Cunningham, Bey and Ivey, Livers believes the chemistry will come easily.

“Those are the guys, you know, their job is to get me open if you think about it. Like, I'm standing on the wings or down in the corner. They just keep driving by their man. Eventually, they're gonna need help. You gotta have a knockdown shooter,” Livers said. "So that just raises my confidence because I know they’ll look for me anyways. So it's just cool to play with guys that are always playing with their head up instead of playing with their head down, looking to just score and score. Those guys are being unselfish. So I'm excited."

Beilein likes how Livers fits with the Pistons' core and believes his versatility will help him earn significant playing time during his sophomore season.

“He’s a multi-position player. I mean, I’m sure he can play the 2 through 4,” Beilein said. “So that really allows him to just... A coach can look at a certain player and say, ‘Well, he's best suited as a 2-guard, so we'll put Isaiah in at 3 or 4.’ Or, ‘He's best suited as a 4-man, so we’ll play Isaiah as a 3.’ So he's extremely versatile in his game. He's gonna be out there. It's not my decision, but he's got a great chance of playing a lot of minutes this year."

Livers’ point of emphasis over the offseason has been improving off the dribble. He mentions coming off ball-screens and handoffs, playmaking while getting to the basket, drawing help to kick out, making the proper reads and going to his pull-up more often.

And although Livers insists his catch-and-shoot game is well cemented (“It’s going up!”), he shares that Butler administered brain tests on him to illustrate he wasn’t being as assertive with his offense and shot-taking as he could’ve been. A former pitcher and center fielder in baseball, the 24-year-old first had to understand what his levels were telling him.

“I'm more of a sit-back, long thinker, think-things-through type, so my red was low. And once me and Reg started talking about it, it wasn't easy for me to acknowledge. I thought I was already aggressive and dominant, but I guess I wasn't,” Livers said. “So once I had seen that, it kind of came to the game. I know what I can bring to the game. So I can go 0-for-10 and I'll still be happy the next day because I'm still going to shoot the same shots."

Case in point: NBA Summer League. Livers went 1-for-8 from deep in his Las Vegas debut, then followed it up with a 4-for-5 performance from downtown in the next game. He averaged 14.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in his two summer-league contests with Detroit on 44.4/38.5/77.8% shooting splits.

Looking back on his rookie campaign, Livers singles out Dallas Mavericks wonder Luka Doncic as his favorite defensive matchup thus far — one that he took pride in even with the Slovenian sensation and the Mavericks “killing” the Pistons by a final score of 131-113. Looking ahead, Livers already has a running wish list of three more big names he'd like to take on: Poole, LeBron James and, one of his favorite players growing up, Kevin Durant.

“I actually had a concussion when we were on the road to Brooklyn last year, and I promise you, I was in the medical staff room every day trying to like push it so I could make that flight to go guard KD; I was trying to do that every day. That's definitely a guy I want to guard," Livers said.

Considering all of the options at a player's disposal nowadays, it's rare for a prospect to attend a university and stay with that same program for four years. It’s even less likely when the coaching carousel leads to personnel changes. 

Livers is one of those atypical cases. Being in school for that long challenged him to overcome adversity and keep his composure, whether it was on the court with the Wolverines or off of it studying sociology. (He completed his degree in general studies with a minor in sociology, but plans on going back for extra schooling, as he's just two semesters of classes away from receiving a degree in sociology specifically.)

“I feel like if I went back and watched all my four years, one by one, each year, I had something new and I'm doing something different and I’m asked to do more. So it was kind of cool. I like the buildup,” Livers said. “You get better every summer. You kind of separate yourself and get better, you learn some more, work on your weaknesses. You only enhance your strengths. 

“So yeah, I take big pride in that, ‘cause not only did I stay four [years], [I also] got my education out of it too. So my mom and grandma are pretty happy about that as well. So you know, it all just worked. It was all full circle. When you stay four years, [there’s a] very, very low chance to get drafted or go to the NBA because they want young guys. But that wasn't on my mind at all. I was like, ‘Shoot, I'm a good player, and I know a team’s gonna want to take me,’ and so, that was the mindset going into it."

Sticking it out at Michigan from the beginning, Livers originally worked with Beilein, who provided him with knowledge of fundamentals and a number of shooting tips.

“He's taught me a lot about how to move off the ball and get myself open,” Livers said. “Just create an advantage for me or the ball-handler coming off the screen. I can slip out of it, do whatever I want out of it, But yeah, we talked a lot about more of how to become a dynamic shooter on the move.”

“He was a guy who, he could shoot, but I wouldn't call him a shooter when we got him because he had a low release point [and] shot out of his chest a little bit,” Beilein added. "We have 100 practices in a year; we worked after practice probably 50 times on just getting better arc, better spin, quicker release, good footwork. And those two years, he shot well for us. But then, as a junior and senior, [he] shot really well for the Michigan team [under Juwan Howard]."

Understanding his athleticism, Beilein also put Livers in spots where he could crash the long boards and provide extra opportunities with his rebounding prowess — something that’s translated to the next level. 

“That's all I did my first year [at Michigan], honestly,” Livers said. “I would start for 15 minutes, grab some offensive rebounds, knock a couple shots down, and I’m coming off of Duncan Robinson, so I established my role that way and got used to it. It kind of got ingrained.

“Coach Casey, we just sat down and watched some film and he said, ‘Hey, you have the license to go do this. I know you're pretty good at it.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, bet. That's gonna open the game up, get second-chance points.’"

When Beilein departed for the NBA and Cleveland, Michigan hired Juwan Howard as his successor. Howard was a 17-year pro with seven seasons of experience as a head coach, so it brought a little bit of a different perspective for Livers and the Wolverines. 

Defense was a focal point right away.

“He literally brought nothing but NBA lingo to our practices. We had to learn it, or we weren't gonna play,” Livers said of Howard. “He let me rock out here and there, but we definitely had more of a focus on the defensive end. Bringing that communication and those rotations that were already NBA-like, you were already a step ahead playing for Coach Howard.”

This helped Livers catch on quickly once he made it to the pros.

“I was just watching as I was rehabbing; I didn't play until like the All-Star break. I was like, ‘Oh, that looks familiar. We did that at Michigan.’ So it was kind of like second nature for me," Livers said. “I learned so much there.”

Since he only played a handful of games, next season could essentially be seen as his actual rookie year, but Livers won’t treat it that way. His teammates and coaches have acknowledged his input and chatty nature from the very first practice he participated in. Everybody in the Pistons organization expects Livers to speak up the way they know he’s capable of.

“I want to feel more like of a vet because I'm establishing my voice within the organization a lot more,” Livers said. “So doing a lot more of that, get a lot more guys to also not be afraid to use their voices to speak up, especially during the game.

“I don't want to look at it like a rookie. Because a rookie is gonna come in like, ‘Oh, where do I go? What do I do?’ I'm coming to the second year like, ‘Yo, we running this. When this happens, I'm over here.’ Stuff like that. Just being more of a leader."

Since coming to Detroit, Livers has established a bond with Casey. The two have a great deal of trust in one another, and continue to strengthen their relationship. 

Livers recalls a late-season game against the Atlanta Hawks, who were fighting for playoff positioning. Casey kept him in with a fourth-quarter situation on a whim when he’d been a 15th man to that point, and Livers delivered two key threes and stole the ball away from Trae Young. The Pistons came out on top 113-110 in overtime.

“I was like the last man off the bench. No one knows what I can bring to the table, and I was hitting shots and started doing everything I was asked of,” Livers said. “What's crazy is Coach Casey had the amount of trust to leave me out there. I know it was the end of the season, but winning the game is winning the game, and he left me out there. So that said a lot about his character and what his confidence was in me. Me and Coach Casey are very close."

Admittedly, Livers has not had his welcome-to-the-NBA moment yet, but he knows it’s coming. When asked about objectives he has set for his sophomore year, he keeps it simple.

“Win. Win as many games as possible,” Livers said. “That is my personal goal this year by any means. And team-goal wise, obviously make the playoffs. It's been talked about here and there, but I truly did not like sitting at home and watching all these playoff games. It was very weird to me, and I don't want to go through that again."

A native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, about two-and-a-half hours west of Detroit, Livers has felt the love from the city and the Pistons’ fan base. 

And if the offseason work is an indication of what’s to come, Livers will be a part of a special up-and-coming era of basketball in the Motor City, not far from where it all began for him.

“This dude has an incredible basketball IQ, and so people love coaching him,” Beilein said. “For a young dude in the NBA, but also, I noticed that when he played for me at Michigan, and those first two years, he understands what makes teams win; that is a talent to understand that this little pass, this extra pass, this pass to lead to the extra pass, is just as important as when you go on 1-on-1 with somebody.

“He's gonna be that 3-and-D guy that you see so much of. It's so successful in the NBA.”

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