Detroit Pistons already seeing benefits of G League's Motor City Cruise

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The Motor City Cruise is in its infancy. The Detroit Pistons’ new G League franchise played its inaugural game Saturday against the Canton Charge (Cleveland Cavaliers).

The Cruise have yet to play a home game at their brand-new arena on Wayne State’s campus, which they share with Wayne State’s basketball programs.

But the Pistons are already seeing the benefits of having their own G League franchise in their backyard. Cade Cunningham worked out with the Cruise two weeks ago as he recovered from an ankle sprain, and made his debut with the Pistons that weekend. And two young players at the end of Detroit’s rotation — Saben Lee and Luka Garza — posted big games in the Cruise’s season opener.

Lee went off for 42 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals in 34 minutes, leading the Cruise to a 140-117 victory. Garza was their second-leading scorer with 24 points and nine rebounds.

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“That was very impressive, 42 points from a point guard,” Casey said Sunday of Lee. “I think he had eight assists. Those are impressive numbers, and again, you look at how that fits into your team. I know he’s got Cade (Cunningham) in front of him right now and Killian (Hayes) in front of him. It’s tough to overtake those guys. Now again, the opportunities are always going to be there, open to it. When he does get his opportunity with the parent team, he has to take advantage of it. But I was really impressed with his numbers and his stat line last night.”

The Cruise also saw strong performances from former Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. (15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) and two-way forward Jamorko Pickett ( 15 points, 5-for-8 from 3).

Lee and Garza have logged a combined 66 minutes with the Pistons (1-8) through nine games. They each logged 34 minutes Saturday. Lee exceeded his season minutes total with the Pistons (27) in one Cruise game, while Garza (39 minutes with the Pistons) came close.

Detroit Pistons guard Saben Lee (38) looks to pass as Philadelphia 76ers center Andre Drummond (1) defends during the first half of an NBA preseason game, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Detroit.
Detroit Pistons guard Saben Lee (38) looks to pass as Philadelphia 76ers center Andre Drummond (1) defends during the first half of an NBA preseason game, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Detroit.

That could be the norm this season, as Lee and Garza are both toward the end of Detroit’s rotation. Lee exceeded expectations as a two-way player last season, but he’s battling against Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham, as well as Cory Joseph, for minutes at point guard. Garza’s path at power forward and center is blocked by Isaiah Stewart, Kelly Olynyk, Jerami Grant and Trey Lyles. The Cruise use the same playbook and terminology as the Pistons, ensuring that the experience players receive in the G League carries over to the parent club.

It’s normal for young players to have to wait their turn -- especially second-round picks. Lee, who was drafted 38th overall in 2020, appeared in 46 games and started seven as a rookie last year. He averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists, shooting 47.1% overall and 34.8% from 3. He’s the most athletic of all of Detroit’s guards, but Casey is challenging him to step up as a playmaker and defender. Garza, who the Pistons selected 52nd overall in July, was a prolific scorer at Iowa. That scoring touch carried over to summer league, but he’ll have to prove he can defend NBA bigs to become a permanent rotation fixture.

Casey has seen this before. When he coached the Toronto Raptors, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet won a championship with Raptors 905. It didn’t immediately translate to more playing time with the Raptors, but that G League experience paid off for them down the road.

“Similar situation we had with Siakam, VanVleet, all those guys in Toronto,” Casey said. “They put up some big-time numbers. Matter of fact, they won a championship. Still, so many guys in front of them that it was hard to just say OK, because of that game, they’re going to come in and overtake your starters in that position. When they do get the opportunity, they have to step in and take it. You watch the growth, you see that and you see where they come from, to see how it fits into what we’re doing and how you can find the minutes or time with the parent team.”

Lee and Garza, along with Isaiah Livers, were shuttled between the Pistons and Drive last week. Because the new Wayne State arena is close to Little Caesars Arena and the Pistons Performance Center, the Pistons can get them additional practice reps with the Cruise between games. Livers, who was drafted 42nd overall in July, is still recovering from a right foot injury he suffered at Michigan during the Big Ten Tournament. He hasn’t resumed full five-on-five action, Casey said, but he’s inching closer to a full return.

“It’s a help for everybody,” Casey said. “It’s a help for Saben, a help for Pickett, a help for Livers when he gets back healthy. Just the experience. Now with Saben going through that experience of scoring 42, eight assists and now able to come back, get the opportunity here, it’s just a great atmosphere, great culture, great setting for our players to go down and play, get the refs, get the experience. And then again, it’s up to them to see how, OK, I’ll score 42 here or whatever the number is, how can I apply that skillset when I go back to playing with the Pistons. It’s a two-way street. Was really great to see Saben have that stat line last night.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons already seeing benefits from Motor City Cruise