Isaiah Livers was playing Fortnite when he got a phone call from his new head coach.
The Detroit Pistons' third-year wing had just suffered a Grade III ankle sprain that would cause him to miss all of training camp, in addition to the first few weeks of the regular season. It was a big setback, especially considering the oft-injured Michigan alumnus tweaked his offseason training regime with the goal of playing all 82 games for the first time in his career.
Livers didn’t know what to expect from the call. But Monty Williams had words of encouragement for him.
“He was like, ‘I feel for you,’ Livers said after making his season debut during Monday’s 107-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Little Caesars Arena. “‘That really hurts. Because he knew what the start of the year was going to be, how much it really meant for me and how much we had talked about staying healthy all the time.
“The first 24 hours once I did it, he was the first one in my ear staying positive and telling me to be me, basically. Stay around the team and tell what I see.”
Williams has been high on Livers’ two-way ability, praising his intelligence on defense and outside shooting, with a career 37.8% 3-point mark.
“He’s a two-way guy, smart,” Williams said on Oct. 4 at the start of training camp. “He can play with the ball better than I thought, watching him play pickup before we started training camp. He can make a pocket pass, he knows how to play in 0.5. He does a number of things well and he’s smart. Talks on defense. It’s unfortunate that he had an injury, because he was having a great summer. He’s been working on his body. We can’t wait to get him back because he’s gonna add some value to both sides of the ball.”
On a roster bereft of depth at power forward, Livers fills an important void. But his connection with Williams goes deeper than that.
In Williams, Livers has a like-minded coach. The two are basketball junkies, and had a lot of phone conversations as Livers rehabbed in the background. It’s part of the reason why Williams had full confidence in him Monday. Though on a minutes restriction, Livers played the final seven minutes of the tight ballgame.
“I watched (Williams) a lot when he was in Phoenix, and I knew what kind of guys he liked,” Livers said. “I didn’t realize how crazy smart Coach Mont was. You see him on TV, you see him standing there with his clipboard and he’s got his little goatee going on. But I’d never met him in my life. When he first got here, it’s like I was talking to someone eye- to-eye. No disrespect to anybody, I can relate to him. He knows a lot about basketball, he watches basketball so it just felt good to pick his brain this summer.”
Livers has had better performances than he had in his season debut Monday. He finished with six points on 1-for-7 shooting, four rebounds and an assist in 23 minutes. Shortly checking in toward the end of this first quarter, he hit his first shot of the night, a midrange jumper.
There will be an adjustment period as he gets his legs back under him. But his presence allowed the Pistons to shift Isaiah Stewart to center late in the game and pair two shooters in the frontcourt — something the team has been unable to do with consistency due to injuries.
“It means a lot,” Livers said of closing the game. “It actually surprised me, but you stay ready. The one thing is I gotta get my legs back. You can do all the hooping on the side and running, but leg fatigue is a big thing. That was a good starter for me to get going and just feel the guys out. Other than that, the cardio felt good. I was really impressed with my cardio.”
Livers rejoins the team mired in a 12-game losing streak, and is hopeful he can help snap it. From the bench during his rehab, he often saw moments he could help as a floor-spacer and defender.
The Pistons need all the help they can get right now. Livers appears to already be a key rotation player as the team takes a few days off before returning on the road against the Indiana Pacers on Friday.
“I think the defense for sure, being able to guard,” Williams said after the game of how Livers will help. “He had a tough and-1 (foul) on Reggie (Jackson), but other than that his ability to stay in front of the ball is gonna help us. And then the versatility on offense.
"He hit his first shot, and then after that he couldn’t make any more. But we just love his ability to space the floor, to play in 0.5. He’s a good passer. He made a nice pass to (Stewart) on the break. Stewy got fouled. We’re just happy to have that kind of size and versatility back in the rotation.”
Next up: Pacers
Matchup: Pistons (2-13) at Indiana (7-5), NBA In-Season Tournament game.
Tipoff: 8 p.m. Monday; Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.
TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WXYT-FM (97.1).
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons show how much they missed Isaiah Livers in his return