Shortly after the NBA Draft, Jaden Ivey said something that excited me more than any of the highlight dunks or elite burst I saw on his college film at Purdue. He said he’d always considered himself a shooting guard.
Why? Because he knows that the Detroit Pistons are Cade Cunningham’s team, and Cunningham will be the primary ball handler for as long as he’s on the roster. That doesn’t mean he can’t excel alongside another player with ball-handling, creating and point-guard skills. In fact, the best complement to Cade is someone who can a little of that playmaking burden off of his shoulders, but also someone who can excel off the ball.
My gut tells me that Ivey could be his best self as an off-the-ball creator, mismatch nightmare and elite finisher. Now he’s in Detroit, and he’s playing off a player who is a great pace-setter with great intuition and vision in Cunningham.
It could be a match made in heaven. But there will surely be bumps along the way.
We’ve already seen some of the best and worst we can expect from Ivey during his rookie season this year in preseason action. Ivey’s burst leaps off the screen, and his ability to use his athleticism, strength and a bit of wiggle to create something out of nothing is a skill Detroit has sorely lacked since the Grant Hill days.
But we also saw a player who hasn’t yet learned how and when to deploy that athleticism effectively, and the shooting stroke remains a big question mark. He averaged 12 points in preseason on just 34% overall and 14% from 3. He also averaged nearly as many turnovers (3.5) as assists (4.0). His turnovers were usually a result of driving into the teeth of the defense and getting the ball poked away, not errant passes. In fact, his natural vision was one of the biggest bright spots in his preseason play.
Know Your Role, Jaden Ivey
Let’s return to a discussion of how Ivey can operate effectively off the ball. With Cade or Killian Hayes running the point, Ivey will be free to leak out in transition and create a kind of effective fast break attack Detroit hasn’t had in years. He can also use several screen a la Rip Hamilton to either create open perimeter opportunities or a curling driving lane to the rim.
As the defense over-helps to cut off Ivey’s path, he can then pass out of his drive to an open shooter like Bojan Bogdanovic, Saddiq Bey, Alec Burks or Isaiah Livers. He has the speed to back door cut any defender who gets too preoccupied with Cade, and Cunningham has the size and vision to get Ivey the ball to finish at the rim.
When considering the prospects available at No. 5 in the NBA Draft, prognosticators were banking on two things in Ivey’s favor. One, he would instantly become one of the best first-step athletes in the NBA, and Ivey would be able to use that to get defenses scrambling. Two, the NBA game plays to Ivey’s strengths to a much greater degree than the college game.
At Purdue, Ivey was part of an effective college attack, but it featured two big men working out of the post in an inside-outside game. The NBA is all about spreading the floor, stretching defenses and giving elite athletes like Ivey room to work.
Ivey was often forced to rely much more on his mid-range and perimeter shot at Purdue, and the hope in Detroit is his job is to run down hill, do it early, and do it often.
If that is what his team asks of him then there will be plenty of learning on the job for Ivey. He needs to adjust to the speed of the game, and he needs to learn that a fissure in the defense that looks like a chasm he can exploit is, in reality, the tiniest crack that will lead to a missed shot or a turnover.
But just like with Cunningham last season, I want to see Ivey fail, and I want to see him fail often. When you have a player with the elite athleticism of Ivey, you want him to learn everything that’s possible, not just stick to what the defenses will allow you to do.
An open lane for Ivey isn’t going to be the same as an open lane for Saddiq Bey. And if Ivey can learn how to navigate a collapsing defense and draw a healthy dose of fouls it will be all for the better.
On defense, Ivey projects to be a plus defender, but, again, that likely isn’t going to be the case in his rookie year. This is all about learning how to be an elite running mate and secondary ball handler and playmaker. It’s about creating rim pressure that opens up 3-point opportunities for teammates and running an effective transition attack for the first Pistons team in forever. It’s about forcing the action and getting the refs to blow the whistle so you can get to the free-throw line.
All the elements are there for Ivey to be an ideal wing next to Cunningham, and for the two to create a dangerous back court in the East for years to come. It’s not going to be excellent right out of the gate, but for Ivey, this rookie season is all about learning what you’re capable of in the wide open spaces of the NBA. I look forward to seeing the results.