A Summer League cut short due to injury is not what any NBA player wants, but there’s something to be said for the way a young player is able to recalibrate and take a setback in stride. Jaden Ivey made an electric debut for the Pistons in Vegas, scoring a team-high 20 points alongside six rebounds and assists to help Detroit take its first win. He’d go on to play an effusive five minutes (and put up 11 points) in the Pistons’ second game before rolling an ankle that held him out for the remainder of the week.
Watching Ivey, the first thing you’re bound to notice is that he’s fast. In college, he looked like a sprinter on the court, using his quickness full-tilt to blow by defenders. In Vegas, he was getting comfortable adding new gears, experimenting with the real-time game manipulation his inherent velocity gave when he abruptly cut it off or went from tearing downhill to cruising cross-court. His soon-to-be teammate, Cade Cunningham, has noticed it too.
“He’s fast. I’m not fast,” Cunningham said recently, noting how much that speed is going to help spread the floor. “I like to kick ahead to push the pace and he can literally sprint it there. It’s going to be fun.”
Cunningham touched on what’s been so palpable since Ivey and fellow rookie Jalen Duren were acquired in June: excitement. The buzz around this season’s Pistons team has been building since the Draft, was flaring like so many neon lights in Vegas, and feels almost heady approaching August. Ivey feels it, too. It’s part of why he plans to head to Detroit in early August to help his grandmother with the family’s annual golf charity event, named in honor of his late grandfather, James Hunter. It informed his Summer League experience, and fit into why Ivey was asked to champion Gatorade’s Athlete of the Year Program after its two-year hiatus.
Dime had some time with Ivey, who wore a square cut, loose leather vest, and smiled often, before the Athlete of the Year award event got underway to talk about his Vegas takeaways, what lessons he wants to take from his mom, Niele Ivey, into his rookie season, his game, and yes, that speed.
You’re about to take the next step in your career, into the pros, but it wasn’t that long ago that you were in the same place as the athletes in the Gatorade Athlete of the Year program. What kind of support, or advice, would you give to this next generation of athletes?
The biggest advice I would give is definitely embrace the journey. You worked hard to get here, to this point, don’t settle for less. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep working hard.
Your grandmother has a charity golf event in Detroit, in honor of your late grandfather, that helps raise money for student scholarships in the community. A part of the Gatorade Player of the Year Program looks at the community impact of Player of the Year winners. You grew up seeing the importance of community impact firsthand, but in your own words, why is it important for athletes to give back?
It’s very important to give back. The youth looks up to us. They look up to every athlete. Whatever sport it is, there’s kids that look up to you, so I think it’s very important to give back to the youth in whatever [avenue] it is.
Have you been involved in the charity event that your grandmother puts on?
Yeah! So now, since I’ve been drafted with the Pistons, I feel like I can help even more. It’s something me and my grandma have discussed, me just doing more for my grandpa’s charity event. I’m actually going — it’s August 6 — so I’ll be there in attendance and I’m going to do whatever I can to help out and help the community out, and make more strides.
Is she excited to have you?
Yeah, she’s definitely excited. [smiles]
On the note of family, you have a pretty impressive one. I have to gush a bit, I interviewed your mom for a story a few weeks ago and I’m sure you know and hear this all the time, but she’s pretty incredible.
She definitely is.
You’re going to make your own name for yourself this season, but what kind of lessons from your mom will you fold into your game, or your role as a teammate?
I think the biggest thing is her passion for the game. It’s why I’m sitting here today. Her passion is greatly tested, I feel like, every day. She’s so passionate about the game and it’s gotten her to the point where she is right now — a head coach. Her passion got her there. So, I’ll never take it for granted, the passion I have for the game, the love I have for the game. Just each and every day try and get better, but never take it for granted. Growing up, I was around great women that loved the game of basketball, and it’s why I’m sitting here today.
I was able to watch your first games in Vegas in person and I have to say that your quickness kind of needs its own speedometer. You’ve said that in college you tried to use your speed at 100 percent all the time, but at Summer League, you were definitely concentrating more on rhythm. How have you been working to add different gears to your game?
I think the biggest thing is slowing down [laughs]. In college, I feel like I was faster and quicker than everybody. So I could just speed by somebody. And in the NBA, it’s a lot of long and athletic, quicker guys. I feel like that’s one of the best parts about my game, is that I can change speeds and get to that burst. So, the biggest thing is slowing down for me and going into games [at Summer League], I just had that mindset to slow down and then go fast. Just change pace, change speeds.
Does that ever feel a little like going against your natural instinct?
Nah, I feel like it benefits me a lot. I feel like guys they guard me and they think I’m just going to at one speed, but if I slow it down, you’re not going to know what I’m going to do. It’s really helped my game a lot, it’s opened a lot of opportunities for me on the court.
That was my next question. When you add those other offensive speeds, or gears, what other changes have you see in the game around you? I imagine it would help with spacing, or opportunities to get the ball to one of your teammates if they’ve got a good look, but what are you noticing?
It opens up the game a little bit more for me. It opens my eyes a little bit more. I can see the floor better, I can find my teammates in the right spots, and most importantly getting to my spots offensively.
I know you didn’t necessarily get the Summer League you wanted, but I was curious what your biggest takeaways were from the games that you played in.
Definitely the physicality of the games. Everybody was really physical. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA, there’s a lot of guys who bring that physical presence on the floor. So I feel like I experienced that my first two Summer League games, and I feel like I’ve embraced it.
Cade Cunningham is one of the most disruptive players to watch, watching his handle, it’s kind of mesmerizing. Are you looking forward to bringing your athleticism and speed alongside his playmaking?
I’m definitely very excited to play with him. I think the biggest thing is he’s a very unselfish guy, so he’s going to find me and find my teammates. And the same with me. I feel like I’m very unselfish, I like to get my teammates the ball and it’s a part of my game I feel like really improved, is finding the right man that’s open. And that’s really going to take my game to new heights.
Was there a pretty quick camaraderie with that Detroit Summer League team?
Yeah, everybody was just happy, just to be together, to put that Detroit Pistons jersey on. Everybody loved it. We all bonded. Everybody’s great guys, everybody gels together really well. And it’s why I feel like Troy Weaver picked the perfect squad. All the guys are just happy to be a Piston. We’re all ready to get to work, for sure.
On that note, you’ve obviously heard it, there’s a lot of excitement around the potential of a young, super quick, very athletic Detroit team this season. Is it feeling that way from the inside too?
Yeah, we’ve got a great young core. We got some guys that are hungry and want to work, and get Detroit back to winning. That’s the biggest thing, I think, when you have guys that are hungry it’s going to do the organization really well. Because eventually, when you have guy like that, who can take this team to the playoffs and eventually win something. That’s the goal we’re setting to begin the season. We want to win a championship for Detroit. Each and every day we’re going to work toward that goal.
Are you looking forward to being coached by Dwane Casey?
I’m really looking forward to it, to playing for him. He reminds me a lot of my grandfather, just the way he speaks. He’s very well-spoken, he’s going to tell you what you need to hear to be a great basketball player. So I’m ready to learn.