The Detroit Pistons’ 2022-23 NBA season was supposed to be a year that saw their trio of presumptive franchise cornerstones harmonize together. Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren were lottery picks selected in last summer’s Draft and expected to join 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham as a rising Big Three. Instead, Cunningham has missed all but 12 games due to a stress fracture in his left shin and subsequent season-ending surgery to address it.
Cunningham’s absence altered much of Detroit’s immediate plans and left everyone adapting to their new reality. He is the nucleus of its team, the primary ball-handler designed to connect with Duren downhill and ease Ivey’s creation burden. Ivey’s afterburners and creativity were expected to complement Cunningham’s patience and savvy. Next season, they still might. Hope is not lost.
For now, though, as the Pistons have forged on the past 4.5 months without Cunningham in the fold, they’ve ramped up Ivey’s ball-handling responsibilities to gauge the scope of his fluency and accelerate his development. The returns, despite some choppy waters and a 16-56 record, have been overwhelmingly encouraging.
Through 64 games, the former Purdue Boilermaker is averaging 15.3 points (52.2 percent true shooting), 4.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds. He should appear one of the two All-Rookie Teams announced later in the spring. That raw stat line pops off the page. The key for Ivey, however, is his tangible progress from October to March.
Plenty of talented rookies have been afforded a gaudy usage rate (Ivey is at 26.7 percent), produced for struggling teams and ultimately failed to evolve to contribute regularly when the priority is wins ahead of development. That’s not to disparage such players because those leaps are complicated, even if external pressures proceed as if they should be seamlessly inevitable. Ivey, though, is evolving in a few paramount ways.
His speed has long served as a prevalent component of his skill-set. Early in the year, it enabled him to generate paint touch after paint touch. But he often operated like he was wearing Heelys absent a break and drove himself into precarious spots. The freedom he’s given still leads to some, albeit much less frequent, similar sequences, yet his change of pace and court vision are considerably improved now.
He better engages pick-and-roll defenders to fashion passing or scoring windows and treats his marquee burst as an omnipresent threat rather than a tool necessary of constant deployment. It will always be available, but he doesn’t have to wear out the accelerator for an entire possession. The result of that understanding is more fruitful ball-screen possessions and playmaking maturation.
Over his first 40 games, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.46. Over his past 24 games, it’s up to 1.88, all while he assumes heightened primary initiator duties. He recognizes the sheer pressure he inflicts by virtue of his wheels, which don’t need to be steadfastly showcased, and is leveraging their presence into easier offensive opportunities. Defenses flock to the paint when he’s in the vicinity.
Capable of slinging feeds from a live dribble and willing to test narrow openings, his passing verve has existed since his NBA debut. That verve is amplified by a refined cadence and an embrace of widespread gears on the clutch. He’s much more well-equipped as a creator than when this season began in the fall.
Not only has Ivey retooled his playmaking approach, he’s expanded where he’s comfortable as a scorer on the hardwood. For a segment of the season, his midrange game ranged from clunky, at best, to nonexistent, at worst. His footwork and preparation into those attempts looked unreliable and hurried, while he also tended to avoid them whenever possible, sometimes at the expense of previously established advantages.
He just didn’t seem sure of how to navigate reps with a defensive anchor camped in the paint and point-of-attack stopper recovering from behind. He’d loft up these long-range floaters, a product of his discomfort and confusion about how to capitalize on vacant space in the midrange.
That’s not the case anymore, at least in certain respects. I first sensed midrange development from him in a Dec. 1 game against the Dallas Mavericks, which was preceded by three games out of the lineup. According to Cleaning The Glass, during those initial 19 games before Dec. 1, Ivey’s long midrange rate was 8 percent and he was shooting 24 percent on them. In 45 games since, those numbers have vaulted to 16 percent and 43 percent.
*Long midrange rate is defined as any shot beyond the free-throw line and inside the three-point arc.*
He’s actively seeking out midrange jumpers, particularly when defenses sag off in anticipation of his feisty forays to the rim. The footwork is much more concise and less noisy. A counter has been incorporated to his arsenal in real time. No longer does he venture into that region without a plan. Below, the first three clips occurred prior to Dec. 1 and the final three came afterward. The difference in lead-up is stark. For Ivey, the midrange is a haven, not a place of crisis, these days.
Ivey’s trajectory as a passer is excellent. His ability to spin the midrange into a beneficial zone for him is admirable and valuable. The next step is continuing to level up as a shot-maker; his 52.2 percent true shooting is 5.9 points below league average. After a suitable start around the rim (61 percent through 19 games, 51 percentile among combo guards), his finishing has spiraled (52 percent, 11th percentile). Some of that is because he’s been tasked with self-generating more of those chances, but he’s also a bit erratic at the basket.
While he’s unafraid of contact, he has to properly channel his knack for physicality. Downloading a floater into his bag of tricks would be a welcomed storyline as well and allow him to be more discretionary on his rim attacks. According to Synergy, he’s 24-of-70 on runners this season and has yielded 0.69 points per possession (17th percentile). The rhythm and build-up aren’t streamlined. Prioritizing that shot over the offseason might bear bountiful outcomes in the future.
I remain quite intrigued to see how Ivey fares next season with Cunningham back. He doesn’t merely hold a monstrous workload for a rookie, he has a monstrous workload among all NBA players and that absolutely dampens his scoring efficiency. According to Cleaning The Glass, 61 percent of his makes are unassisted, which ranks in the 87th percentile among combo guards.
Cunningham’s return and a summer of growth could acquiesce some of Ivey’s burden and Detroit’s collective foibles. Ivey periodically exhibits off-ball utility. He’s a perceptive cutter, can burn faulty closeouts and has hinted at some movement shooting faculty. He’s not a dynamite shooter, but he isn’t shy, nor is he completely inept either (33.5 percent beyond the arc this year, 35.8 percent last year at Purdue). Diverse actions directly involving that duo should be a focal point schematically.
Ivey’s blend of quicks, flexibility and perplexing change of pace could render him an illustrious slashing guard in the coming years. He displays some distinct movement patterns working downhill to reach advantageous places on the floor. Throughout the year, he’s increasingly parlaying that talent into playmaking possibilities and broadening his horizons as a scorer.
As Detroit heads toward a third consecutive finish around the East cellar, it should find solace in the multifaceted breakthroughs of its dazzling rookie guard, who touts a silhouette of intrigue, promise and joy. His circumstances haven’t always been conducive to success, but he is attaining it nonetheless in year one.
All stats are accurate prior to games played on March 21.