Perhaps no position had more questions going into last season for the Detroit Pistons than their guards. Fans wondered how Cade Cunningham’s rookie season would unfold, how he’d fit alongside Killian Hayes, and how the largely unproven rotation would play out as the season progressed. The opposite is true this year, Detroit’s guard rotation boasts the most talent it’s seen since the days of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, and the future of the position is all but written in stone with both Cade and 5th overall pick Jaden Ivey in the fold. Still, with a mix of young players and highly experienced veterans, it’ll fall on head coach Dwane Casey to find the right mix of development and competitive lineups to get the most out of his talented, yet still fledgling group.
Let’s start with the player that is both the present and future of Detroit Basketball. Cade Cunningham largely delivered on his promise as the first overall pick in the draft, averaging 17.4 points on 41.6% shooting, along with 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while finishing third in an extremely competitive rookie of the year race. This season isn’t about proving Cunningham belongs in the NBA, it’s about proving he belongs among the future elite players in said league. Solid leaps in efficiency both outside the three-point line, where he shot 31.4% from last year, and also by the rim, where he finished only 58% of his shot attempts, should not only quell worries raised by some about his ceiling, but also significantly boost his overall production as a scorer and passer. No rookie in the league came close to approaching Cunningham’s gravity on the ball, and that should continue this season as he leads Detroit’s offense once again. Increased strength should lead to better finishing, as well as the incorporation of the post-game he showed off in high school and college. An All-Star berth might be asking a bit much of him in a stacked Eastern Conference, but it’s not out of the
One of the reasons Troy Weaver landed on Jaden Ivey with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft was explicitly in order to pair Cunningham with the perfect complementary player. While Cade picks apart defenses with his methodical play and devastating passing abilities, Ivey is a blur on the court, punishing the opponent’s lapses in concentration with his lightning-quick first step and eviscerating transition defenses whenever given the chance. Ivey averaged 17 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 46% shooting for Purdue last season, and while he’ll be counted on to relieve Cunningham of some playmaking duties, it’s his off-ball prowess that should stand out during his rookie season.
Defenses that fail to account for Ivey when they collapse on his teammate’s drives to the rim open themselves up to getting embarrassed by his explosive athleticism. Ivey WILL catch multiple bodies this year, but the real question is whether he can maintain what appeared to be a somewhat suspect outside shot. He hit nearly 36% of his threes last season and actually became more efficient the further he crept beyond the line. If he can force defenses to respect his pull-up three and play tighter on him in both the half-court and in transition, the sky is the limit for Jaden Ivey. There will likely be growing pains, but the idea of Detroit having two elite guards with wildly different but equally effective styles of play is not only a tantalizing prospect, but may be the reality as soon as this year.
This is a make-or-break year for Killian Hayes. After a difficult rookie season, there were higher hopes for the former 7th overall pick going into last season. The addition of Cade Cunningham and a full, healthy offseason seemed like just the cure for Hayes’ first-year woes. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way, as Killian made minuscule strides in his output, averaging 6.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on 38% shooting from the floor. If a move to the bench wasn’t clear enough, the selection of Jaden Ivey in this year’s draft made it obvious Detroit’s front office had seen enough to move on from Hayes as a starting guard and foundational player. Still, at just barely 21 years of age, Hayes is likely the Pistons best perimeter defender, and their second best passer. Should he take a step forward with his much-maligned three-point shooting, or continue to improve from inside the arc with his midrange jumper and finishing at the rim, Hayes can still become a crucial piece of the puzzle while coming off of the bench. Marcus Smart and Shaun Livingston are both examples of big, defensive-minded guards who were equally, if not more offensively inept at the same age as Hayes and eventually developed into key players for championship contenders. The path there is a long and difficult one, but it’s still a possibility if Hayes can finally find his footing this season.
Joseph hasn’t always been Mr. Popular among Pistons fans, but he provided solid production for Detroit last year, first off of the bench and later as the starter next to Cade Cunningham, averaging 8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on 45% shooting from the floor (including 41% from three-point range). While the additions of Jaden Ivey and Alec Burks should in theory make Joseph a bit-player for the Pistons this year, in reality, he still likely has a role to play for Detroit, first by filling in for the ailing Burks to start the year, but also as a player Dwane Casey can trust if and when injuries occur during the season. No, CoJo won’t jump off the screen when he’s on the floor, and he’s certainly not someone you want playing big minutes on a team with three young, talented guards, but if and when the Pistons need a stabilizing influence on the court, don’t be surprised if the coaching staff turns to Cory Joseph to help provide it.
Potentially one of Detroit’s more underrated moves during the offseason, the acquisition of Alec Burks gives the Pistons a reliable, high-end backup guard, something they haven’t had since the days of Will Bynum (my apologies to any Ish Smith fans reading this). Burks averaged 11.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3 assists for the Knicks last year, and though he only shot 39% overall, he hit 40% of his threes, which accounted for nearly half of his shot attempts. While he’s more of a shooting guard than a point guard, he’s more than capable of taking some playmaking duties from Killian Hayes while they’re both on the floor together. A capable catch-and-shoot threat with the ability to get his own shot inside the arc as well, Burks should regain some of his form from inside the arc this year and provide similar production for the Pistons as he did for New York. Don’t be surprised if he finishes as one of the top five scorers for this team by the end of the season.
Rodney “The Scavenger” McGruder
McGruder has basically done nothing but exceed expectations for the Pistons whenever given a chance. He only averaged 5.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and a shade under an assist per game last year on 43% shooting, but don’t get it twisted, McGruder can get you a bucket if you really need one. What he brings to the team in terms of veteran leadership and professionalism couldn’t have been made more clear than the way he carried himself during the aborted Bol Bol deal, continuing to play his role without as much as a single protestation despite coming back to the team that traded mid-season (he even suited up for Denver for a game!) It’s improbable he receives any sort of meaningful playing time for this team outside of a possible late-season tank job for a lottery position, but should he be called upon by the coaching staff, fans can at least expect a modicum of offensive capability when he’s on the floor.