POP 2021-2022 Season Review: The Guards

Cade Cunningham

The consensus number one pick in what may very well go down as one of the best drafts in NBA history, all Cade Cunningham did as a rookie was finish the season with averages of 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game, numbers matched by only five other rookies ever. Here’s a list, perhaps you’ve heard of a couple of them.

Still, it wasn’t all roses from day one. A pre-season ankle injury caused Cunningham to miss Detroit’s first six games of the season, and he needed a couple of months to get his feet underneath him. Coming into the month of December, he was averaging 13.8 points per game on 36/27/84 shooting splits and a true shooting percentage barely above 46%.

On November 30th, however, Cade dropped 26 points on the Portland Trailblazers on 13 shots and 2 measly free throw attempts. From that game onwards, Cunningham averaged 18.6 points and 5.9 assists per game on far more respectable 43%/33%/85% splits for a high-volume rookie guard. As the season progressed, so did Cunningham’s development (it’s impossible to talk about this and neglect to mention the impact that trade-deadline acquisition Marvin Bagley had on Cunningham’s growth as a passing threat). In one of Detroit’s final games of the season, he put up 34 points against the Brooklyn Nets, almost singlehandedly dragging the Pistons to an upset victory and at times looking like the best player on the floor against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

While Cunningham’s often solid and occasionally jaw-dropping offensive abilities certainly gave Pistons fans hope for the future they haven’t had in the past 15 years, his defensive prowess and potential also lived up to the pre-draft hype. He averaged nearly 2 steals+blocks per game, and showed off his IQ by reading offenses and rotating like a seasoned vet. He wasn’t perfect on that end but he showed an ability to switch, rotate, use his strength against quicker opponents, and his savvy against bigger opponents. He may never be an All-Defensive team member, but he’ll also never be a liability on defense and could easily develop into one of the best two-way guards in the league.

While the Pistons 23-59 record and Cunningham’s early season struggles with efficiency played a major role in him finishing third in the Rookie of the Year race to Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley, he has quickly and definitively proven himself to be a long-term building block for Detroit, and potential face of the franchise for years to come. Sure, there are nits to pick; his first step was underwhelming as predicted, and he got to the line less than just about any other player in the league with a usage over 20%, but whether he tops out as a perennial MVP candidate or simply as a multi-time All Star, Cade Cunningham already represents the future of Pistons basketball.

Killian Hayes

This was a far less straightforward season for Detroit’s first draft pick in 2020. After a difficult rookie season marred by injuries and brutal play, Hayes entered 2021 as a major question mark in Detroit’s guard rotation. Regardless of who Detroit selects in this year’s draft, it’s hard to see that changing in 2022. Hayes was the Pistons starter for the majority of the season but was moved to the bench at the end of January after suffering his fourth minor injury (if you count Covid) of the season. Dwane Casey’s decision was highly defensible, as Hayes was averaging a paltry 6.2 points, 3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on abysmal 34%/30%/85% splits.

The move to the bench proved a fruitful one for Hayes, however, as it gave him greater freedom to utilize his passing abilities and more confidence to seek his own shot. While his 42%/21%/67% shooting splits were still nowhere close to acceptable for a long-term rotational player, they represented a massive improvement in Hayes’ finishing ability and aggressiveness in attacking the rim. While the overall numbers might not show it, his games towards the end of the season hinted at a potential leap in production for next season, at least inside of the arc. Still, his three-point shot remains broken and his precipitous drop in free throw percentage is highly worrying.

Overall, it was a mixed bag of a season for Killian Hayes. Being dropped to the bench, failing to improve his shooting, and a seemingly unending streak of ticky-tac injuries has certainly given even his biggest defenders pause, but on the other hand, his late season surge, along with a seeming shift in mentality, plus his occasionally game-changing defensive play gives hope for the future.

If Hayes can continue to impress defensively while progressing as a distributor and threat to score in the paint, he’ll get more chances to prove himself as the long-term partner next to Cade Cunningham. Even if he doesn’t get there, he could easily carve out a role as an elite bench option that can swing games by picking apart second units with his passing and finishing at the rim while shutting down their half court offense with his length, strength, and phenomenal ability to read passing lanes. This season was ultimately a minimally successful one for Hayes, but depending on the Pistons draft and free-agency moves, this could be very close to the end of his stay in Detroit.

Cory Joseph

Perhaps the most maligned member of this year’s team among the fanbase, Cory Joseph quietly had himself a solid season as the Pistons lone backcourt veteran. Joseph started 39 games for Detroit, first filling in for Cade Cunningham, and later for Killian Hayes. While his production was far from spectacular (8 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game) he provided a level of stability and efficiency that was largely missing from the other Pistons guards. CoJo shot 41% from three this year, providing one of the few consistent catch and shoot threats for a team that desperately needed them. While his defense and shot choice were suspect at times, there was a reason Dwane Casey leaned on him so heavily next to his other young guards. Occasionally that came at the expense of both the team and the other guards. Still, overall Joseph’s consistency and yes, veteran leadership, was a necessary evil to keep the wheels from truly falling off for the Pistons young backcourt.

Saben Lee

Expected by some coming to unseat Cory Joseph from his position as the third guard for the Pistons coming into this season, Saben Lee never lived up to those expectations and largely stagnated in his second season. While he absolutely tore up the G-League, dropping 40-point games left and right and ultimately finishing second in MVP voting, Lee could never translate that effectiveness to the NBA. While he didn’t get a ton of chances, he also didn’t show much to justify more playing time in the minutes he did receive, stagnating in many aspects and regressing in others. Lee simply didn’t look comfortable or confident in his few opportunities, and while the Pistons early offensive struggles had some fans clamoring for him to step into the rotation, those calls quickly faded when Detroit looked even more inept with him as their lead guard. Much like Killian Hayes, Lee struggled with his aggressiveness and with his outside shot. Unlike Hayes, however, he remains a defensive liability, a threat to dribble the air out of the ball and an uninspiring passer. Far too many of his possessions went nowhere, with his drives to the lane never legitimately threatening the rim. If Lee wants another shot at Detroit’s rotation, he’ll need to make some massive leaps this offseason. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see where he fits into GM Troy Weaver’s long-term plans.

Frank Jackson

After scoring nearly 10 points per game on better than 40% shooting from deep last tear, Frank Jackson entered the season with somewhat lofty expectations for a player that couldn’t manage to catch on with a couple of equally moribund franchises in Oklahoma City and New Orleans. Unfortunately, he showed exactly why those franchises were unimpressed with his skillset, regressing horribly to the tune of 40%/30%/83% splits. However, this criticism also comes with some caveats. Jackson’s early-season struggles were in line with the rest of the offense, but unlike Saddiq Bey and Jerami Grant, he was unable to stay on the court constantly, picking up injury after injury. Jackson enters this offseason in a precarious position, the Pistons have a team option on his $3.1 million salary for 2022-23, and depending on cap space, draft picks and salary needed for other free agents, there’s a chance he won’t be back with the franchise. Teams always need catch-and-shoot specialists, and theoretically, Jackson does fit that mold, but he’ll need to convince the front office that his career three-point percentage of 33% is a mirage and not the 40% he put up two seasons ago.

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