Three of Pistons' 'Core Four' find moments to shine as roles expand
When Pistons general manager Troy Weaver made a flurry of trades to get two additional picks in the first round and a second-round pick, he had a clear plan of how the rebuild was going to go.
He called the selections — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee — the “Core Four,” a nod to the New York Yankees’ resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s.
It’s not that Weaver was making any predictions about multiple championships in the Pistons’ future, but he was trying to lay the groundwork for a resurgence. That optimism took a hit in the first month of the season, when Hayes, the No. 7 overall pick, sustained a torn hip labrum and was shelved for a couple of months.
In the interim, the other three have made their marks. When he started getting consistent minutes, Stewart made an impression with his grit and hustle, becoming a fan favorite almost immediately. In a two-week span, Bey and Lee each led the team in scoring in a game.
Bey was the Eastern Conference player of the week, and Lee’s 21 points opened some eyes that he could be a key rotation piece. In the midst of a 9-23 season, the Pistons are taking their lumps, but the outlook for the long term is looking brighter with Core Four.
“The future's bright. It's ugly right now by getting our butts kicked,” coach Dwane Casey said. “We have some high-character guys, some solid guys and a young man like Killian coming in is going to help them a lot. I like what we have with the new players.
“We have Josh (Jackson), who is still young, and Isaiah, and all these young guys contributing in the right way. So that's why it's exciting to think about the future and to add some pieces and make some moves, but the foundation is being built in front of us right now.”
After trading Derrick Rose and coming to an agreement that Blake Griffin will sit out, the Pistons have carved out more playing time for their young core, with Bey moving into the starting lineup, where he’s averaged 12.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and has shot 38% on 3-pointers in about 33 minutes per game. That’s a hefty increase for Bey, but it’s a necessary move to see how he acclimates to starters’ minutes.
It’s a little baptism by fire, but the rookies have fared well when given more playing time.
“It’s good for all of us to continue to improve and go through experiences,” Bey said. “Going through things and continuing to learn is great; it's a blessing to have this opportunity.”
There’s a camaraderie building between the rookies as well, even with Hayes not joining them on the road. As they achieve even their small successes, they try to give some acknowledgment for even incremental steps forward.
“We encourage each other. All three of us in the locker room, we always encourage each other, whenever each one of us has a good game, we pick each other up and tell each other how proud we are of each other,” Stewart said. “Just sticking together, we're trying to build something here, so just making sure we're just working every day.”
Of the three, Lee’s improvement has seemed to come out of nowhere. After playing in just eight games through Feb. 9, he’s moved into the backup role after Delon Wright’s groin injury, which will keep him out for at least two weeks.
Although Lee only had played spot minutes previously, he was thrust into heavy minutes on the recent road trip, and he’s responded with 15.3 points, 4.3 assists and only 1.3 turnovers in his last three games.
“He stayed ready during the stretch not playing a few games and to come right in and make that impact. I know he has that in him and I wouldn't expect any different,” Stewart said of Lee. “I'm very proud of him. That's a guy who I see who just works hard, keeps his faith in God and lets the rest take care of itself.”
That the rookies are contributing at a high level is proof of how hard they’ve worked with the coaching staff on skill development. Stewart and Lee often stay after home games and work with the coaches to get extra shots and individual work that would mimic what they missed in not having a typical offseason or Summer League to get ready for the season.
“My hat is off to all those young guys in the entire league — not just our team — but all the rookies that had to go through this pandemic and didn't get an opportunity to have Summer League and the fall workouts, and a regular training camp,” Casey said.
“This (losing) builds calluses. This entire season will build calluses in a game like (Wednesday) and back-to-backs we're going to face or being just shorthanded. Whatever it is, it's going to build calluses for the coming years.”
Pistons vs. Kings
► Tipoff: 8 p.m. Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Pistons (9-23) lost four of five games on their road trip — but they have won four of their last five games at home. After a promising start, the Kings (12-19) have lost eight straight games.