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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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’
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.”