Niyo: Doumbouya’s surge shows Pistons might eventually emerge from this mess

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Pistons look like they’re halfway to nowhere again. But as they tipped off the second half of what has been a hugely disappointing regular season with a 116-103 victory in Boston on Wednesday night, at least you could see something on the horizon.

It’s only a glimpse at this point, but the arrival of rookie first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya is a welcome sight just the same.

Sekou Doumbouya helped the Pistons to their best shooting night (60.3 percent) in nearly a decade on Wednesday in Boston.

And even on a team that was sporting its worst first-half record in a quarter-century after 41 games — matching that 14-27 start from Grant Hill’s rookie season in 1994-95 — there’s a growing sense this current youth movement just might be worth watching.

It wasn’t simply Doumbouya’s career-best effort — 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting — against the Celtics, though that certainly was one of the highlights for head coach Dwane Casey’s team as it snapped a three-game skid.

“He’s coming along, he’s developing right before us,” Casey told reporters after the NBA’s youngest player — only a month removed from his 19th birthday — helped the Pistons to their best shooting night (60.3 percent) in nearly a decade. “He has a ways to go — don’t want to overreact — but I like what his future holds.”

And that’s what this second half of the Pistons’ season has to be about, with the playoffs a long shot and the short-term view for this franchise as murky as usual, thanks in part to the league’s most expensive injury list.

Blake Griffin’s probably lost for the season after knee surgery. Luke Kennard’s out until the All-Star break, perhaps, with his own knee problems. And Reggie Jackson’s expected return soon isn’t going to transform this team in any considerable way.

But the continued growth of players like Doumbouya might eventually, and that’s a reality that’s not lost on some of his veteran teammates, including Markieff Morris, who affectionately calls the 6-foot-9, 230-pound rookie “Prince,” perhaps in a nod to his unique “Coming to America” backstory — born in Guinea, raised in France.

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“It just shows what we’re capable of, (when) the young guys step up,” Morris told reporters Monday night. “ ‘Prince’ over there, he’s been doing a great job as a starter. He’s got a great future. He’s bringing an energy, he’s changing things around here. …

“That’s the Prince. You’ll see, in about five years, he’s gonna have Detroit on his back, man. I can almost promise you that.”

Pistons fans have been promised plenty in recent years, and they don’t have much, if anything, to show for it. But that finally might be changing.

The development of some of the other younger players on the roster already offers an endorsement of sorts for Casey and his staff in what has become a undeniable rebuilding effort this winter. Same goes for the current front office and its ability to dig its way out of the decade-long malaise.

The next few weeks will be telling in that regard, as Ed Stefanski & Co. survey the NBA landscape and decide what to do with some of the Pistons’ viable trade chips before the league’s Feb. 6 deadline.

The Pistons have actively shopped Andre Drummond this winter, but what about Derrick Rose, who is thriving again in a leading role after signing a two-year deal in Detroit as a free agent last summer? Or Morris, who holds a player option for 2020-21 and is shooting nearly 40 percent from three this season after Monday’s 23-point outburst. Langston Galloway, another three-point threat who might be able to help a playoff contender, also could be on the move as a pending free agent.

A year ago, the Pistons dealt two players on expiring contracts — Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson — at the deadline in exchange for 21-year-old prospects in Svi Mykhailiuk and Thon Maker and a 2021 second-round pick.

They’re reportedly seeking a draft pick or young player in addition to expiring deals in exchange for Drummond, who can either exercise the player option ($28.75 million) for the final year of his contract this summer or decline it and become a free agent. But without a bidding war, getting something other than guaranteed cap flexibility in return for what may be a two-month rental seems like a big ask.

On the other hand, Stefanski did well with limited options a year ago, landing a player in Mykhailiuk who is proving to be a find as sharp-shooting wing. He, too, posted a career-high Monday with 21 points and five assists in 29 minutes off the bench.

Couple that with the production the Pistons have gotten the last year-and-a-half from guard Bruce Brown — a second-round pick in Stefanski’s initial draft in 2018 — along with the waiver claim on Christian Wood, a backup big man who has been Detroit’s most efficient scorer this season, and it’s at least a reason to trust the talent evaluation from this current regime.

Doumbouya, meanwhile, already is flashing the kind of game that could make him one of the steals of last June’s draft. The 15th overall pick began the season playing in the G League, but a rash of injuries — most notably Griffin’s ailing left knee that required another surgery — thrust him into the lineup, ready or not.

And while it’s been a baptism by fire — guarding the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green — he’s more than holding his own.

In eight starts, Doumbouya is averaging 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds with the third-best true shooting percentage (60.4) on the team. He might’ve introduced himself to the league by posterizing Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson with a monster dunk. (”It’s a crime scene!” yelled ESPN’s Jalen Rose as ESPN replayed the highlight on a loop the next day.) But for all the pre-draft talk about his raw skills, what has impressed Casey the most of late is the rookie’s grasp of some of the nuances of the game, specifically his ability to cut and move without the ball. The way he ran the floor Monday night paid dividends with easy buckets in transition, and as Morris noted, the energy he brings is a bit contagious.

“He’s young and he’s able to play through his mistakes,” Rose said. “And when a coach lets a player like that do that, you never know, the sky’s the limit.”

For a team that’s been trapped by its own ceiling for far too long, that’s an encouraging thought, if nothing else.

Rookie on a roll

Sekou Doumbouya has scored in double figures in all but one of his last eight games.

Jan. 2, at L.A. Clippers: 10 points, 11 rebounds

Jan. 4, at Golden State: 16 points, 10 rebounds

Jan. 5, at L.A. Lakers: 11 points, 5 rebounds

Jan. 7, at Cleveland: 8 points, 1 rebound 

Jan. 9, Cleveland: 12 points, 3 rebounds

Jan. 11, Chicago: 12 points, 3 rebounds

Jan. 13, New Orleans: 16 points, 8 rebounds

Jan. 15, at Boston: 24 points, 2 rebounds

Twitter: @johnniyo