A couple years ago, I was rifling through the small collection of sports ephemera in my parents’ basement when I came across an old invitation to a draft-watching party the Pistons were hosting at the Palace. On the front of the card were photos of previous first-round picks—Isiah Thomas, Grant Hill—and then an empty silhouette with a question mark to represent that year’s future megastar selection, sure to carry on the proud tradition of Pistons excellence. On the back of the card was the date of the party: June 26, 2003. The silhouette would become Darko Miličić.
Until now! All eyes in the basketball world were on this afternoon’s release of the famed and very important NBA.com “rookie ladder,” which features not one, but TWO members of this year’s Pistons first-round rookie trio in its top-10 power ranking.
The fan-favorite of the bunch might be the Pistons’ No. 16 overall pick, Isaiah Stewart, a little undersized at center at 6-foot-8, but with an incredible 7-foot-4 wingspan and rebounding motor that have drawn him hopeful comparisons to Ben Wallace. (Here was Wallace’s own response to that comparison last week: “I haven’t seen much of him.”) No play better captures this youth movement than Stewart connecting on a lob pass from fellow teen Killian Hayes, a No. 7 overall pick, who re-joined the lineup earlier this month after injuring his hip in just the seventh game of the season. Hayes has looked much better in his return than he did in those first games, and though his modest offensive production right now won’t get him onto the famed and very important NBA.com rookie ladder anytime soon, he is proving to be a very exciting passer and excellent off-ball defender. Adding some much-needed outside shooting to this group is No. 19 overall pick Saddiq Bey, a legit steal of the draft whose remarkable production puts him, at the very least, adjacent to the Rookie of the Year conversation.
Do you believe this? Do you have any idea what this means? After many painful years of going 0-for-1 in the first round of the draft, here is a possible 3-for-3. The trio finally got to shine together in the starting lineup this past week with older starters Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Dennis Smith Jr. and Wayne Ellington all either resting or out with injuries. They entertained in a win Monday night against the Cavs, which Bey began by starting 6-of-6 from three in the first quarter to help the Pistons jump out to a 23-point first-quarter lead. Stewart finished the game with 16 rebounds; Hayes with nine assists. In the previous game, they made a 15-point second-half comeback to finish a season sweep of the Thunder. The average age of Detroit’s starting lineup that night was 21 years and 2 months, which might be more startling had the Thunder not fielded a band of starters with an average age of 21 years and 1 month.
Those similarities may not be a coincidence. The Pistons’ new GM, Troy Weaver, a one-time scout, was hired away from Oklahoma City in June. It was his Presti-esque flurries of dealmaking that got the team those two extra first-rounders before the draft and left 20-year-old Sekou Doumbouya, the Pistons’ 2019 first-round pick, the longest-tenured member of the team. The Athletic’s James Edwards shared that last Friday’s teen-off against the Thunder was the third time the Pistons have started three rookies since 1980. The first time, one of the rookies was Greg Kelser, who coincidentally can be heard yelling “Oh my goodness! No! No! No! Nooo!” in the below clip of an extremely cool and stylish bowling ball pass from Hayes to Bey.
Maybe you are puzzled by my celebrating the simple fact that everyone this NBA team selected in the first round of last year’s NBA draft seems basically capable of playing in the NBA. Maybe this reads to you like I am cheering the rising and setting of the sun or the recycling being picked up on collection day or some mundane thing it is reasonable to expect in a society. If so, OK, and good for your team. What you must understand, though, is that life amid the FOUR concurrent Detroit sports rebuilds requires staggering amounts of faith and patience each day. I am doing my best. I am trusting some young pitchers to put it together in the next few years, eating tape of the SHL postseason, and trying very hard to forget that a football team sometimes plays at the local vaccination site. But while a wiser and savvier fan would have already fully re-trained their autonomic nervous system to get hyped about deals and future picks by now, this dumb and impatient one still cherishes those rare moments when I can see physical manifestations of promise or progress with my own eyes! On the court! In actual Detroit Pistons games!
And there’s a lot to love about having a rookie core like this one. It offers some reason to care about a team that’s just about the worst in the Eastern Conference. It gives you adorable quotes like Hayes saying, “I’ve never played with anyone who plays as hard as Isaiah. We look up to him.” (They’re both 19.) And if, sometimes, it leads to last week’s tanktastic finish against the Clippers (blowing a five-point lead with 45 seconds left) or going completely cold after that electric first quarter to basically give up the aforementioned 23-point lead against the Cavs, well, that is simply the price of allowing your exciting youths to play minutes.
The other price: a possible hit to the Pistons’ draft lottery odds. Following those two teen-led wins, Detroit heads into tonight’s game against Dallas tied with the Orlando Magic for only the third-worst record in the league, with the Thunder right in the mix, too. A more pessimistic Pistons fan would tell you this team’s chances at a first-overall pick were doomed to begin with; in 14 lottery appearances, the Pistons have never moved up beyond their standing. But the past is the past. And after this year’s surprisingly good-bad season, who’s to say the luck hasn’t changed?