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Film Don’t Lie: Trey Lyles, the surprisingly effective small-ball 5

Lyles has played a much larger role than anyone anticipated this season, and he’s figuring out how to contribute as a surprise center

Phoenix Suns v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

It is no surprise that second-year point guard Killian Hayes is the most polarizing member of the Detroit Pistons after an injury-marred an ineffective rookie year. What is most surprising is who might be second on that list — Trey Lyles.

First, it’s a surprise he’s getting enough minutes to warrant a large amount of attention and scrutiny. Second, he’s a low-cost, stopgap veteran who fills in the cracks of a young, inexperienced rotation. Third, he’s replacing a player whose production it is not hard to replace in Sekou Doumbouya.

Of course, even more surprising than how polarizing Lyles has proved to be is just how effective he has been as a small-ball 5 on a Pistons team missing first big off the bench Kelly Olynyk and has been forced to weather the occasional absence of starting center Isaiah Stewart.

Lyles is both playing an outsized role at an outsized position, and I appreciate his willingness to play as a “small ball” 5 during this stretch when the team has absolutely needed him to eat up minutes. The question now is what will Lyles’ role be once the team’s big-man rotation is back at full strength? Stewart is back in the starting lineup and Kelly Olynyk’s return appears imminent. Let’s take a look at how the Pistons are using Lyles, and project what the future might hold.

Ball Screener/Scorer/Passer - OFFENSE

When looking at Lyles on the offensive end, I want to start with what he brings in ball screen situations. Whether he is playing his natural position at the 4 or as the small ball 5, I do not believe it will change his impact. In most on-ball screening situations (and off-ball, for that matter) you will not find Lyles setting a solid screen that creates an advantage for his teammates. He often ends up just spinning in a circle as he tries to decide what angle to set the screen on the defender. In the rare cases he does roll to the rim he is obviously not a lob threat at all or for an offensive rebound and put-back, BUT you might find him finding a crafty way to score. His absolute best usage is in the pick-and-pop to knock down a shot OR use that “top-5 in the league shot fake” (I know this isn’t a real stat but it FEELS like it must be true) to create a driving lane.

His shot fake and respectable shooting numbers from the 3-point line (just under 30% this season but 34% for his career) and midrange allow him to get defenders leaning out of possession and attack the basket. This is where playing as the 5 really becomes an advantage. He forces opponents to choose between closing out hard and allowing the drive or closing out short and giving up the shot. He is just dangerous enough on offense to stretch the defense and create space for everyone else in the offense.

Lyles is far from a perfect offensive player, of course. He is limited to being a straight line driver who is not going to create. And when he does try to get crafty, he will often make a bad decision. There are a couple shots every game where Lyles leaves fans scratching their heads with his decision-making.

Prior to the season, I had Lyles pegged as a ball mover who kept the offense flowing. Not necessarily a guy who created or had a ton of assists, but a guy who caught the ball, made a quick decision, and got the ball where it needed to go next whether that was a shot, pass, or dribble. That has not necessarily been the case in the minutes we have seen thus far, BUT in the few games I used for this breakdown we did see it show up just a LITTLE bit more.

Rebounding

According to ESPN.com, Lyles has a 18.3 Defensive Rebounding % which is good for third on the Pistons behind only Stewart and Kelly Olynyk who has only played 10 games. To be one of the team’s best rebounders (not the most difficult feat) and play heavy minutes at the 5 despite his size, Lyles has certainly impressed. I do wish we would see a more aggressive Lyles on the offensive boards (2.5% less than Stewart) but for the advantages he creates on offense playing small he does not necessarily give them up when it comes to rebounding on the defensive end. If I had to give one critique of Trey when it comes to defensive rebounding it would be that he tends to leak out just a little too much when contesting a perimeter jumper. This can be useful for a big who is going to post early in transition but that is not something we have seen be a positive in his game.

Being as many fans would probably like to see Luka Garza getting some of these minutes at the 5, I did want to give the per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions rebounding numbers for Lyles and Luka. (per basketball reference)

Defensive Rebounding (Per 36)/(Per 100):

  • Trey Lyles — 6.6/8.8
  • Luka Garza — 3.7/5.0

Offensive Rebounding (Per 36)/(Per 100):

  • Trey Lyles — 2.4/3.3
  • Luka Garza — 5.3/7.1

Defense

Defensive metrics are always a little suspect, but by defensive rating, the Pistons perform just about as well or better with Lyles on the court as with any other major rotation player outside of Hamidou Diallo and Isaiah Stewart. And by Net Rating, the Pistons are outscored by only 5.1 points per 100 possessions, which is best on the team for any player with at least 300 minutes played.

Even though I do believe you see him applying pressure on the perimeter, which fits the aggressive style of play we have seen from this team, he does have a very low steal% and a block% on par with Cade, Luka and Hami. His blocks usually come from a weak side rotation and we have seen specific games where he did at a decent level. When asked to simply hold his ground against bigger and stronger 5s is where the issues of him playing “small” come into play.

He cannot hold up in the post against those players and even as a smaller player he is not really switchable in ball screen situations which is probably the most unfortunate thing about him playing at the 5. It seems like every player I do a breakdown on loses focus off the ball more often than I would like (maybe I should lower my expectations), and it is no different for Lyles.

He is simply nothing more than “neutral” as a defender at his best, and he is mostly a negative on that end of the floor. Honestly, this may be true whether playing the 4 or the 5 with different limitations being taken advantage of depending on his role. I think the hope is on most nights his defensive rebounding and offensive floor spacing/production can outweigh this OR even cause the opponent to go small as well.

Sometimes a player’s role is borne out of necessity, and I can’t help but wonder if that is what has happened with Trey Lyles. Of course, I could be wrong and we see him slide right back into the 4 spot when everyone is healthy but if so it will be VERY interesting to see what kind of production this team gets from him. I also cannot help but wonder if Lyles ends up being an asset at the trade deadline who could be part of a larger name on the Pistons’ roster.

He has shown solid production recently, an ability to play two positions/roles, AND is on an extremely reasonable contract that has a TEAM OPTION for next season. I would not be shocked to see him wearing a different uniform after Feb. 10, which would probably make a lot of Pistons fans very happy.