A new era of Detroit Pistons basketball has officially begun in
the Motor City. After over a decade of waiting anxiously for a
return to relevance since the golden years of Chauncey Billups,
Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben
Wallace, Detroit is back on the map.
Securing their first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history,
Detroit landed one of the most pro-ready star prospects in the
Cade Cunningham instantly became Detroit’s top sports figure
once he donned the Pistons’ hat during the 2021 NBA Draft. After
dominating the competition at Oklahoma State University on his way
to winning the Wayman Tisdale Award (given to the top freshman in
college basketball), Cunningham was a sure-fire No. 1 selection
with limited flaws in his repertoire.
Cunningham represents how franchise-changing players enter the
NBA: jumbo playmakers who can score efficiently on all three
levels. Many of today's top young stars, such as Devin Booker, Trae
Young, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum, possess these traits that have
helped them reach new heights in short order.
Becoming the immediate No. 1 option in Detroit’s system,
Cunningham will put up numbers during his rookie season, but don’t
sleep on his defense. Cunningham has every tool at his disposal to
become a top-20 player in the league within the next few years,
which should make Pistons fans giddy for their immediate- and
During the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Cunningham has
continuously flashed his sky-high potential by averaging 18.7
points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per
game while shooting an eye-opening 50% (13-for-26) on three-point
attempts. Of course, it’s a small three-game sample size, but
Cunningham is showing exactly why he was one of the easiest No. 1
picks in recent memory.
With their young superstar secured for nearly a decade, Detroit
also has a promising trio of prospects already in their development
2020-21 All-Rookie forward Saddiq Bey is locked in as Detroit’s
wing of the future. Perfectly fitting within the 3-and-D label, Bey
shined last season, averaging 12.2 points with a 38.8% clip from
Killian Hayes, the No. 7 overall pick from the 2020 draft,
struggled adjusting to NBA speed on both ends, but he looks the
part of a low-usage primary initiator who can play solid
Isaiah Stewart made veteran center Mason Plumlee expendable
after showcasing real value as a multi-faceted big man who can
contribute in every fashion. Among players who logged at least 700
minutes last season, only four averaged 13.0 points, 11.0 rebounds
and 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes: Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Robert
Williams and Stewart.
The No. 1 pick can join this solid young core and quickly
expedite their rebuild. Cunningham, Bey and Stewart check the boxes
at each of the game’s three foundational spots (ball=handler, wing
and big), but questions still loom about whether Hayes is a
compatible fit long-term alongside Cunningham due to his lack of
shooting at this stage.
We haven’t even discussed Jerami Grant yet, who exploded onto
the national scene once he finally received an expanded role in
Detroit. Showcasing himself as one of the NBA's best role players
in Oklahoma City and Denver — thriving alongside stars such as
Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray —
Grant decided to bet on himself, signing with the Pistons instead
of returning to a potential Finals contender. During the 2020-21
season, Grant averaged 22.3 points as his career-best usage rate
jumped over 10 percentage points from the year prior with the
Nuggets (18.0% to 28.5%).
Detroit is still a year or two away from playoff contention, but
having Grant on board will ease the pressure placed upon
Cunningham. The Grant-Cunningham duo will create highlight moments
and wreak havoc in two-way situations as a guard-wing combination.
Cunningham will allow Grant to slide back into a secondary role as
well, which should make him an even stronger complement to the
Oklahoma State product.
Although they will surely fly well under the radar next season,
Detroit has a complementary core that fits well together.
Cunningham, Bey and Stewart are part of the long-term core, while
Grant has the potential to ascend to an All-Star-caliber player
with extra help surrounding him.
This leads us back to the biggest question currently on
Detroit’s roster: Hayes. The 20-year-old French point guard is the
X-Factor in Detroit's status as a rising franchise. Hayes struggled
mightily during his rookie campaign, which resulted in a porous
42.2% True Shooting percentage. Hayes flashed the defensive ability
to handle point guards in one-on-one matchups, but the offense was
a net negative. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 6.8 points per game
while shooting 27.8% on three-pointers. In order for Hayes to
become a strong complement to the sturdy core already in place, he
needs to expand his two-way profile.
So far in Las Vegas, the results haven’t been encouraging during
Summer League action. Hayes is 7-for-22 (31.8%) from the floor,
including 2-for-11 (18.2%) from deep. Hayes’ inability to keep
defenses honest is a real concern moving forward, questioning again
whether he can be a real complementary piece around Cunningham, who
needs floor-spacers to showcase his playmaking chops as a 6-foot-8
Once Detroit added Cunningham, they made a real effort to
acquire perimeter gravity within their system. Signing Kelly Olynyk
to a three-year, $37.2 million contract on the first day of free
agency — the best floor-spacing big on the open market — sent a
message about how the Pistons' offense will function in 2021-22 and
beyond: completely through their generationally-talented rookie.
Detroit also signed Trey Lyles, another jump-shooting big, and
re-signed Frank Jackson and Rodney McGruder.
Hamidou Diallo, whom Detroit acquired mid-season from Oklahoma
City, has his restricted offer waiting from the Pistons. It’s
currently a waiting game between both sides, but it should get done
eventually, returning a springy athlete to feast on lobs and cuts
around the basket from Cunningham.
Scanning through Detroit’s rotation, it’s not a collection of
misfit toys. There’s real talent assembled in the Motor City,
allowing head coach Dwane Casey to trot out a potential 10-12 man
unit that could look like this:
Starters: Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Jerami
Grant, Isaiah Stewart
Bench: Frank Jackson, Saben Lee, Hamidou Diallo, Rodney
McGruder, Josh Jackson, Trey Lyles, Kelly Olynyk
Sure, the Pistons are not a real threat in 2021-22 and perhaps
not in 2022-23. However, don’t be surprised if the team makes a
leap quicker than expected. With Cunningham, they have a win-now,
face-of-the-franchise prospect who could lift a subpar roster on
his own terms. Throw in their strong ancillary pieces and Detroit
is coming down the pipeline as a real Eastern Conference playoff
threat. In the meantime, they’re definitely near the top of the
list of squads to follow on NBA League Pass throughout the