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Pistons buy G League team to play in Detroit for 2021-22; Grand Rapids Drive mull options

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

First it was the Pistons moving back to play in Detroit. Then it was building a new practice facility. The final piece is the Gatorade League franchise.

It’s all in Detroit now.

The Pistons are getting a new minor league affiliate, beginning in the 2021-22 season. The team and G League jointly announced Wednesday the Pistons have agreed to purchase the Phoenix Suns’ affiliate, the Northern Arizona Suns, with plans to move that new team to the new arena being built on the campus of Wayne State University after next season.

Wayne State University shows an artist rendering for the planned construction of a $25 million arena for the WSU men's and women's basketball teams in partnership with the Detroit Pistons during a news conference in May 2019.

The Grand Rapids Drive, who had been Detroit’s G League affiliate since 2014, have an uncertain future and will play their last season under the Pistons’ flag before the transition to the newly purchased team and new arena. The Drive will remain in Grand Rapids and are looking at options, which include aligning with a different NBA team or remaining in the G League as an independent franchise when their agreement with the Pistons ends.

“The Drive stand committed to the city of Grand Rapids and we look forward to our continued future here in West Michigan within the NBA G League,” the Drive said in a statement. “We’ve begun discussions about the future of our affiliation; details of which we hope to have in the coming weeks. Our focus has been, and will continue to be, providing the people of West Michigan with a great professional basketball experience.”

There are three NBA teams — the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and now the Suns — who don’t have an affiliation with a G League team. The league has 28 teams and also is expanding to Mexico next season with an independent franchise.

The Drive developed strong fan support in the Grand Rapids area and have a separate ownership group — which includes former Pistons icon Ben Wallace — and the new purchase gives Pistons team owner Tom Gores control over the new Detroit-based franchise, as the Drive didn’t want to relocate from Grand Rapids.

“I’m thrilled to announce Detroit’s purchase of their NBA G League team and that they will be bringing a G League team to the city of Detroit,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim said. “There's obviously a ton of positive momentum around the Pistons organization and their young team, and I believe this only builds on that, bringing a G League team to Detroit.”

Wayne State and the Pistons last year announced the construction of a $25 million arena that will house the new G League franchise as well as Wayne State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. The new facility will be 70,000 square feet and will be located near the corner of Warren and Trumbull on the school’s athletic campus.

The distance between Grand Rapids and Detroit had been an issue in past years, but the new team will be within a couple of miles of the new Pistons practice facility in midtown Detroit, which will be a benefit to the G League players, who can be closer to the team headquarters.

The Grand Rapids Drive have been affiliated with the Detroit Pistons since 2014.

“This is another important investment in our franchise and in the city of Detroit,” Gores said in the joint statement. “Having an NBA G League team near our new performance center will be an advantage for our front office, our coaching staff and our young players. It will also generate more economic activity in the area and serve as a catalyst for additional development.”

Having all of their franchise operations within a two-mile radius will be a benefit for the Pistons, as they can shuttle players between the G League team and the Pistons almost seamlessly.

And more importantly, without the 160-mile drive to Grand Rapids.

General manager Troy Weaver noted that he had a similar setup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when their G League franchise moved from Tulsa to be in the same city with the parent club.

That made it easier for players like Luguentz Dort, who progressed to the starting lineup this season, partly due to the comfort level he achieved in playing with the G League group.

“He had a seamless transition to the Thunder and he's playing tremendous basketball,” Weaver said. “So, we have an example right in front of in front of us.”

When coach Dwane Casey was with the Toronto Raptors, he saw similar development from Pascal Siakam, who has become an All-Star, and Fred VanVleet, whose stock has risen in recent years.

They’re hoping that same transformation can happen for the Pistons with their young players.

All in Detroit.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard