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Josh Jackson among defensive dynamos for Pistons in early going

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

After three preseason games, it’s still too early to get excited about the Pistons ahead of the regular season, which starts Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In Thursday’s win over the Washington Wizards, the Pistons had their best outing and provided some optimism about what the regular season could look like. With the majority of the roster being new, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done with jelling on both ends of the court.

Seemingly, the bigger issue is on the defensive end, where the Pistons have improved in each of the past two games, both victories. The Pistons had a truncated training camp and only had a few days to go through 5-on-5 work before the first exhibition game last week.

Pistons guard Josh Jackson, left, battles for the ball next to Wizards guard Ish Smith on Thursday night.

“It's cool. It's definitely a step up from the first two games for us. We still have a long way to go, but at the same time, I think we've moved forward,” said Jerami Grant, who had 15 points, after Thursday's win. “It's really early, and it's still preseason; we just got together less than two weeks ago. We're just getting everything in order, but I think it's definitely a step up from the first two games.”

The lack of timing and chemistry has shown at times during the preseason games, where there were rampant turnovers early on and subpar shooting. Although the defense has improved because of the long, rangy wings, making shots still hasn’t been as contagious, outside of a few exceptions.

Some of it is starting to come together in small sample sizes but it’s still something that coach Dwane Casey hopes to improve upon as the regular season approaches. There’s only one game left to see it in action, but Casey said, “It’s very rushed and offensively is where it tells on you. The timing, the spacing, the understanding, the nuances of back-cuts and making sure you understand who's in the dunker spot and all those things on the fly. Those are things that you usually get done in preseason and in training camp and also in the summer, you have a chance to work.

More: Beard: Starting Wright makes sense; Doumbouya shines again for Pistons

“But again, your defense has to carry you and be solid. Offensively, that's where I think we're behind a little bit on our timing, the rhythm of the shots. Guys turning down shots that are wide open, the shots we'll have to be able to take and make when the regular season starts.”

Grant has some chemistry with Mason Plumlee, who has shown himself to be an impressive passer as a big man on the perimeter. That was built together in the time together in Denver, and keeping them together in the starting lineup makes a lot of sense.

How that melds with Blake Griffin, Delon Wright and Killian Hayes in the starting lineup still is a work in progress but will be important to the Pistons' trajectory this season.

“We have a lot of players that know how to play the game, and we're just getting used to each other,” Grant said. “I think we'll learn fast.”

One of the biggest surprises of the preseason has been the progression that Josh Jackson and Sekou Doumbouya have made as a forward combination with the reserve group. It’s not even just the scoring — they combined for 27 points and went 4-of-6 on 3-pointers on Thursday — but it’s the defensive intensity.

At 6-foot-8 and 6-9, respectively, they’re both defensive hounds and represent a solid duo that’s versatile enough to play either the wing or forward spots. That could open some interesting rotation options for Casey.

"Sekou has been playing well at a high level. I think he's been playing as well as he's played since he's been here on both ends of the floor," Casey said Friday. "Josh's defense was intentional last night. He did an excellent job defensively in certain situations. That's what we need him to do consistently. His focus there for a stretch was really strong."

Grant can see where things are starting to come together, with the bench being a linchpin for getting some of that momentum going, especially on the defensive end.

“I definitely think they're important pieces on our team with their length on the defensive end, and also their ability to score the ball in whichever way we need them to score,” Grant said. “It's huge for us that Josh has been shooting the ball really well and Sekou has been playing really well. It starts on the defensive end and they've been bringing that.”

There was some inkling of what Doumbouya could provide, but Jackson could provide some needed scoring on that second unit with Derrick Rose, Svi Mykhailiuk and Jahlil Okafor. His 3-point shooting has picked up — he shot 32% on 3-pointers each of the last two seasons — and he could help considerably if he can pick that number up to the league average.

That hasn’t been Jackson’s bread and butter but he’s likely to change some of the opinions about his game if he can continue as he has.

“That's one thing that guys sometimes get labeled in certain areas and Josh, unfortunately, is one of those kids that got labeled as an athlete and a cutter," Casey said. "Josh is a good shooter. He's one of our better defenders, and that's where he gets his juices going, on the defensive end. He's still understanding and getting a feel for the offense and exactly what he's supposed to do and exactly where he's supposed to be, which is difficult for anyone.

“I'm really happy to see him taking and stroking the ball with confidence.”

Pistons at Wizards

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

TV/radio: 97.1 FM/None

Outlook: The Pistons (2-1) finish the preseason with the second game in three nights against the Wizards (0-2). Russell Westbrook, who didn't play in Thursday's loss, looks like he'll play, as well as Davis Bertans.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard