POP 2021-2022 Positional Preview: The Bigs

The NBA season is quickly approaching. This past Sunday began the preseason and the Detroit Pistons opened their preseason on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs. Today, we continue our preview across the three positional groups on PalaceOfPistons.com. We have already previewed the season ahead for players such as Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, and Saddiq Bey in our season previews for the guard position and the forward position that was released earlier this week. Today, I’ll look at Detroit’s group of bigs, which comes in a bit lighter this year after the Pistons seemingly rostered six centers last season. 

Jerami Grant

While many have already given the keys to the franchise to number one pick, Cade Cunningham, let’s not forget about Jerami Grant, who is coming off a career year with the Pistons, flirted with being named to the NBA All-Star Team, was a runner-up for the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award, and was a member of the gold-medal finalists’ Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics in which he spent time training, playing, and building relationships with some of the best players and coaches in the NBA. 

Until Cade Cunningham can prove otherwise, Jerami Grant is still the “star” of the Pistons, and the team is relying on him to not only play at the same level that he did last season, but to take the next step towards stardom. 

Grant posted career numbers while leading the Pistons last season, handling the ball more than ever before and burdening the load of being the number one option on offense for the first team in his career. As the Pistons look to improve upon a 20-win season that they endured last season, Grant will be “the guy” leading them out of the bottom trenches of the Eastern Conference. 

Isaiah Stewart

Dwane Casey has yet to name his starting lineup, however, it seems likely that Isaiah Stewart will be the starting five on opening night given Casey’s hint that the starting lineup will be younger while the bench unit will be a bit more seasoned.

Stewart only recently returned to full 5-on-5 basketball activities after suffering an ankle injury this summer when he trained with Team USA in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics as a member of the Team USA Select Team.

Stewart enters year two coming off a stellar rookie season that ended with the 6’9” center being named to the All-Rookie Second Team. In 68 games, Stewart averaged 7.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. He eventually worked himself into the starting center spot towards the end of the season, as Mason Plumlee battled injuries and rest opportunities. In the 14 games that Stewart started in last year, he flirted with a double-double, averaging 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game to go along with 2.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. 

As the Pistons look to surround Jerami Grant and Cade Cunningham with the right complementary pieces, Stewart fits in as a high-energy, rim-protecting big that can anchor the defense. Detroit is hopeful that Stewart can take the next step this upcoming season as a floor-spacing big, as last season he shot 33.3% from the 3-point line. 

Kelly Olynyk

Detroit spent most of its cap space taking on dead money this offseason, but they did splurge on Kelly Olynyk, who they signed to a three-year deal at the beginning of August. At 6’11”, Olynyk doubles as a combo big who’s best known for his ability to space the floor. After being traded to the Houston Rockets in March last season, the Canada native posted career-high numbers in points per game(19.0), rebounds per game(8.4), assists per game(4.1), and field-goal percentage(54.5%). 

It’s highly unlikely that those numbers transfer with Olynyk to Detroit, but the team will certainly need him to produce offensively. Dwane Casey has already stated that Olynyk will be a high-usage player, being featured heavily in the pick-and-roll game while also working in dribble handoff sets as well. He is the team’s best floor-spacing center and should make life much easier for guards such as Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham. 

Although Casey has not named a starting lineup yet, I did say on a recent Palace of Pistons Podcast, that I could imagine Olynyk being named Detroit’s starting center. As mentioned earlier, Casey later came out and said that the starting lineup will likely look much younger while the second unit will feature veterans and a group with more experience. Wherever Olynyk slides in, he is set to play a large role for the Pistons this season. 

Trey Lyles

Perhaps the least exciting addition to the Pistons from the offseason, Trey Lyles joins Detroit after a pair of underwhelming seasons with the Spurs, which was preceded by an underwhelming year with the Denver Nuggets. That being said, it seems clear that Lyles will be a part of Detroit’s rotation as the team is thin at the backup four spot with the likes of Sekou Doumbouya and Tyler Cook no longer with the franchise. 

As discussed with previous players, Detroit needed to add shooting to the frontcourt, and in theory, Lyles is a stretch-four. However, Lyles has been an inconsistent floor spacer throughout his six-year career. He has three seasons in which he shot > 38% from the 3-point line, but the other three seasons he shot 35% or worse. 

If you can’t tell, I’m not the highest on Lyles. He has spent six seasons being a mediocre player at best, and his most productive season came four years ago during the 2017-18 campaign. However, I expect him to be a part of Detroit’s 10-man rotation so pray for a decent shooting season. 

Luka Garza

Has Luka Garza generated more buzz on Pistons Twitter than Cade Cunningham this summer? It sure seems so. The 52nd pick in the 2021 NBA Draft shined in summer league with Detroit and with the help of his endearing father, has turned into a Pistons Twitter darling. However, Garza has not only endeared himself to Pistons Twitter but Detroit’s front office as well, as General Manager Troy Weaver wasted no time converting Garza from a two-way contract to a standard contract before training camp could even begin. 

It’s been a heck of an offseason for the 6’11” product from Iowa, who could have an opportunity to see NBA minutes sooner than anticipated. As mentioned, Detroit’s frontcourt is lonelier than it was last year, which benefits Garza. If Stewart or Olynyk ever have to miss time, Garza would be the de-facto option to absorb some of their minutes. That being said, while the frontcourt remains healthy, Garza will likely remain at the end of the bench while up on the main roster. It’s also expected that he’ll spend plenty of time with the Motor City Cruise, Detroit’s G League team. 

The Rotation Outlook

Jerami Grant is the only player out of this group that is a lock to be in the starting lineup come October 19th when the Pistons open the season against the Chicago Bulls. Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk will battle for the starting center spot in training camp, but no matter how it shakes out, both will play large roles this season. It’s also likely we see Stewart and Olynyk on the floor together according to Dwane Casey. 

After those three players, the rotation gets a little murkier. It’s anticipated that Lyles is set to receive consistent minutes off the bench, but if he underperforms then Detroit could shrink its rotation to nine or go small and turn to one of its wings to sap up Lyles’ minutes. For now, Garza is best served to spend time developing with regular minutes and a large role in the G League but represents injury insurance. 

If out of the three position groups you are most concerned with the bigs group, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s the grouping that has the last depth out of all three. However, it does have the best player out of any group in Jerami Grant, and I would say it also has the best second unit player as well in Kelly Olynyk. Injuries will be the big concern for this group throughout the season, but if the key pieces can stay healthy, then Detroit’s frontcourt should be able to hold its own. 

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