Las Vegas — Dwane Casey had the summer attire down: a Detroit Tigers cap, shorts and a golf shirt. The new Pistons head coach dropped in on Thursday’s practice, getting a sneak peek of what to expect ahead of the Summer League opener on Friday.
Assistant coach Sean Sweeney is running the Summer League roster and Casey said he’s looking to see how some of the young players can augment the team. That includes Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and rookies Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown, who are all on the summer roster.
Beyond them, Casey has been looking to the contributions that Stanley Johnson can bring in his fourth season, after an up-and-down start to his career.
“It’s his consistency and getting his mojo and his swag back. The only way to do that is to get back in the gym with repetitions and play — and that’s what he’s doing now,” Casey said. “I believe in Stanley. That’s the first thing I told them in the interview. There’s something with Stanley Johnson that’s there — and we have to bring it out of him. The talent is there and I believe in him. I know it’s there and he’s shown it.”
Casey said in his introductory press conference that Johnson is one player who can defend LeBron James effectively but after an encouraging rookie season, Johnson has struggled to find a good groove.
Casey is looking to change that.
“He’s got the macho and mentality and mental and physical toughness to guard (James),” Casey said. “Those are the things Stanley can bring to the table. I know he can; it’s there. It’s a matter of him allowing himself to do it.”
In the past few weeks, Casey has tried to get acclimated to his new roster by meeting with players, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and figuring ways to help them improve.
The focus will be on taking smart 3-point shots within the flow of the offense — and improvising when teams try to take away the 3-point option. It’s a read-and-react mentality and Casey says it’ll take some work to instill the proper execution.
The bigger task will be getting everyone comfortable with taking the shots when they’re there and not worrying about the results.
Newly hired Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney talks about what attracted him to join Dwane Casey's staff and what he hopes to accomplish in the NBA Summer League. Rod Beard, Detroit News
“We want to be a 3-point shooting team and we have to work on it first and then (see) what’s the next option when they run you off the 3-point line,” Casey said. “There are certain things we want to do when they run you off. The ball goes out to you and we want that to become natural for our guys.
“As a coaching staff, we’ve been working on getting guys acclimated. The No. 1 thing is to not forget about the defensive end. There’s a flip side in what we want to do defensively: guard your yard and guard your space. Our goal is to let our defense lead to easy offense.”
Casey’s approach is to instill confidence in his players and let them play more freely — as long as it’s within the framework of their principles. It’s a fine line that they’ll learn to balance, but that was his calling card with the Raptors — and the success was evident because of it.
He’s hoping to infuse some of that in Ellenson, who will be the focal point of the Summer League squad. Ellenson could have the same developmental arc that Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam had in Toronto. Unlocking that potential could be one of the bigger boosts for the Pistons.
“I was telling Henry that when I look at him, I see a young Dirk Nowitzki — long and lanky,” Casey said. “He’s not where Dirk is now, but that’s where he should look in his game: shoot the 3, making plays and passes, not getting hurt or letting the defense hurry him up.
“It comes with time; you can’t rush Father Time. It’s patience and understanding what he’s doing and playing. I don’t care if he misses 15 shots — take 15 more.”
Kennard will miss the tournament because of a strained left knee, but the planning beyond the summer continues. The coaches planned to play Kennard at point guard to see how he could adjust to handling the ball more and distributing.
That’ll have to wait until training camp in the fall, but Kennard can continue to work in the summer.
“What he’s doing a good job right now is paying attention and understanding what a point guard does and what he does at that position,” Casey said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a total setback. That’s what the Summer League was for — to see him and Henry get acclimated to what we want them to be offensively.”
Without Kennard, the Pistons will lean more on Thomas and Brown to produce at the wing spots, which will be another intriguing development in the tournament. Casey likes their physical nature and how they’re already set to contribute with their athleticism.
“Khyri has defensive toughness. He’s a better shooter and I saw that (today). That’s something that’s evolving is his 3-point shooting,” Casey said. “I like their toughness and they’re sponges and that’s all you can ask for from a rookie. There’s so much to learn and you’re not going to throw it all at them in a week and have them pick it up.”
Sweeney wouldn’t commit to starters for Friday’s opener against the Milwaukee Bucks but without Kennard or Keenan Evans, who was signed to a two-way contract, point guard could be a pivotal position.
“We’ll probably go with Larry Drew II,” Sweeney said. “We have a number of guys who are relatively versatile offensive players — Bruce and Khyri played in different positions in college and Henry has good ball skills — and we’ll see guys in different situations.”