Ann Arbor — In the week of training camp, the Pistons have worked on coach Dwane Casey’s offensive and defensive systems and gained some comfort with it.
Although there have been questions about Reggie Jackson’s health and whether he’d be ready to start the regular season, he has progressed in his rehabilitation and got medical clearance to participate fully in workouts.
If he’s healthy, it’s clear that Jackson will be the starter, but Ish Smith will be a weapon as the backup. It’s nothing new for Smith, who has been an integral part of the Pistons’ second unit. Because of Jackson’s injuries the past two seasons — which caused him to miss a total of 67 games — Smith has been pushed into a starting role repeatedly, which has been somewhat to the detriment of the bench group.
That’s something that Casey is looking to maintain, even if Jackson is injured again. Casey sees the importance of the reserve group and is looking to establish an identity for the second unit.
“It’s the ball-moving team. We have to change the game and increase the lead and definitely not lose it,” Casey said. “Speed up the game defensively and offensively. That’s what you depend on your second unit for, to speed up the game. That’s an aspect we want to make sure we get with that second unit.”
Last season, Casey’s Raptors went deep into the bench, utilizing Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl to help tilt games in their favor with their efficient play.
Casey is looking to recreate the same success with the Pistons, with Smith, Jon Leuer and Zaza Pachulia. The other two pieces would be either Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard or Glenn Robinson III — whichever two are not starters. There are plenty of permutations of those groups, with more athletic groups, ones proficient in 3-point shooting and taller ones.
One critical piece is Leuer, who is 6-foot-10 and after missing all but eight games last season, could be a big addition.
“He can also play with Blake at (center) or whatever it is. Jon is very versatile in what he can do and play, and his experience is off the charts,” Casey said. “He’s a Swiss Army knife that can go in a lot of different directions.”
The glue to that group is Smith, who can change a game with his speed and quickness. He’s renowned for being difficult to guard by players from other teams, but rookie Bruce Brown has gotten a close-up look at it.
Brown is regarded as a defender himself, but he admits that guarding Smith is no easy task.
“He’s the fastest person I’ve ever guarded. It’s both (fast and quick),” Brown said. “He’s herky-jerky. You know he’s going to reject the ball-screen and you still can’t stop it.”
Even if Jackson is injured, the plan could be to move Jose Calderon into the starting role and keep Smith as the reserve, as the second group seems to work best with him at the helm. Casey hasn’t revealed how he’ll stock the starting five and reserve group, but he gave a hint that it wouldn’t necessarily mean just promoting Smith, as Stan Van Gundy did in his tenure.
“I hadn’t made that decision totally yet. (Calderon) did a great job of starting with Cleveland last year,” Casey said. “If you look at his numbers in the games he started when their point guard went down, it’s a heck of a winning percentage as a starting point guard.
“(Starting Calderon) is a thought process that we’ve talked about because Ish is so valuable in coming in and changing the game with his speed."
Casey’s vision that the reserve unit should play fast and be athletic could suggest how the bench will be composed. Kennard provides the shooting touch and versatility that aided the reserve group last season. Though he’s been limited in the past few weeks by a knee issue, Kennard still could be ready to play by the start of the regular season.
Robinson could add the 3-point shooting that the reserve group needs and bring athleticism to a squad that would need to match Smith’s speed, as Johnson did in his time on the second unit and with Smith.
There could be some odd lineups as well, as Casey did with mixing some of the starters and reserves to create mismatches. One of those was using shooting guard DeMar DeRozan at small forward or even power forward. Jackson could be used similarly.
“We’ve got a big point guard in Reggie Jackson, who gives us a valuable extra ballhandler who can guard different positions,” Casey said.
Those lineups could be utilized more frequently, but there isn’t much time to work on those alternative groupings in practice. It often comes in preparing for end-of-game situations but could be sprinkled throughout games.
“A full practice or working together is hard to do because you don’t have enough point guards to go with the second group,” Casey said. “Some of it is by gut. Reggie or Ish or Jose may be having a good night. Jose and Reggie can play different positions and they’re smart enough to do it.”