In Pistons’ young players, John Kuester finds a group that will play hard for him

John Kuester walked away from the Pistons’ bench, puffed his cheeks and let out a deep breath.

I don’t know whether any Pistons approached him before or after the Fox Sports Detroit cameras showed him after tonight’s game, but for that extended moment, he stood in isolation. And, really, that’s where he is now.

He didn’t play his young players enough early, so they don’t like him. He didn’t player his old players enough lately, so they don’t like him. All the while, he hasn’t won enough games, so management doesn’t like him. At least that’s how it all seems.

Since the alleged boycott, I haven’t heard one person who collects a paycheck from the Pistons support Kuester.

After tonight’s 120-116 win over the Jazz, Kuester has a chance to create the base of supporters he’s never had in Detroit – the Pistons’ young players. The youngsters injected life into a sad team from the opening tip, and they didn’t let up, even when a Utah team the Pistons hadn’t beaten in six years appeared to pull away in the fourth quarter.

Detroit didn’t quit, and that will go a long way in repairing its relationship with a hurt fanbase. Even the apathetic fans who long ago lost interest in this declining team bemoaned yesterday’s shootaround boycott.

Kuester insisted he had move past yesterday’s incident. He said it’s important to look ahead. At least two of his players agree.

“We have some young talent on this team, and we’ve got to start using it,” Rodney Stuckey told Eli Zaret after the game.

When pressed about why the Pistons had more energy than other games, even after several players played so many minutes last night, Will Bynum said, “You see the guys that were out there? We were all younger guys.”

If Kuester keeps playing those guys – and considering he said the Pistons showed more “cohesiveness” and “energy” than any game this season, he should – this team could become fun to watch again. Not good, but for a team that has nothing, fun would present huge progress.

Young vs. old

The divide between young and old on this team is already so pronounced. The young players play hard in games. The old players play childish games.

The five Pistons who missed all of yesterday’s shootaround – Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Tracy McGrady and Chris Wilcox – are Detroit’s five oldest players. For a long time, the Pistons relied on those first. Before yesterday, the Pistons hadn’t played without Hamilton, Prince or Wallace since April 10, 2002.*

*Thanks to Dave Hogg for inspiring that stat.

Ready to move on? The Pistons are showing they can.

But they’re not haphazardly leaving the veterans behind. According to Chris Iott of, Kuester said, “You don’t earn it on the past. You earn it on how you work every day and how you react to things every day.” That opens the door for the boycotters to return. Start acting right, and all will be forgiven. But it must be on his terms, not theirs.

Wilcox and Hamilton apologized for skipping the shootaround without an excuse, according to Ken Berger of CBS Sports. Wilcox started tonight, but Hamilton’s transgressions range way past missing yesterday’s practice.

Unless conflicting information comes out, I’ll accept the report that Austin Daye and Stuckey were late due to confusion about the practice’s time. That might be their fault, but they served their penance by missing the 76ers game. I’ve forgiven them.

As far as the other five, the healing process hasn’t begun. That wound is too fresh. Any Piston who skipped yesterday’s shootaround to protest his coach embarrassed himself and his team. Kuester has clearly made some sort of piece with Wilcox, but I’m not there with any of the five yet.

Setting an example

When it comes to the boycotters’ actions, I can take solace in only one thing. Throughout this whole saga, I’ve worried that the young players were learning the veterans bad habits.

Daye and Stuckey proved those fears wrong tonight.

“I’ll take full responsibility for it," Stuckey said, according to Iott. "It won’t happen again."

“I have no problem with Coach. Missing the bus was inexcusable. I apologized to Coach and I apologize to the fans,” Daye said, according to Hogg. I’ve worried about Daye’s maturity a lot since the Pistons drafted him, but that statement represents a huge step for him. Of course, his actions will say more, but I’m thrilled to hear he didn’t dodge public scrutiny like a few teammates did.

Austin Daye explains and apologizes for his tardiness Friday. (Video from Dave Pemberton of The Oakland Press)

Daye changed my mood toward the team. The veterans should take a lesson from  him.

Winning cures all ills

Before the game, I shared Patrick’s anger. Now, some of the bitterness has subsided. Even though the boycotters had nothing to with tonight’s victory, the effort by the players who saw the court tonight numbed some of the resentment I felt toward the boycotters.

In his interview with Zaret after the game, Stuckey joked about having a lot of energy because he didn’t play last night. Before the game, that remark would have ticked me off. But when I heard it, I chuckled. That’s because the Pistons played hard and won – a combination that will always please me.

They won because Kuester – who so many inside and outside Detroit’s locker room would like to see fired – pushed all the right buttons.

  • He rode Rodney Stuckey for 41 minutes, and Stuckey responded with 28 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals.
  • He used Will Bynum as an effective change of pace to the tune of 11 points, eight assists, four steals and a team-best plus-22 rating.
  • He let Austin Daye (18 points and 4-of-5 3-point shooting) play through several defensive lapses against Andrei Kirilenko, and late in the game Daye finally stuck with his man defensively and made a couple big shots offensively.
  • He called Greg Monroe’s number a bit more (12 points), and Monroe didn’t stop rebounding (16).
  • He dusted off DaJuan Summers, who hit a fourth-quarter 3-pointer to tie the game.

One game doesn’t make Kuester a great coach, but it’s time everyone acknowledge he’s not Michael Curry. Kuester showed faith in his young players, and they responded in a big way, keying 12-0 and 8-0 runs in the fourth quarter.

This group of players still has glaring flaws. Detroit played poor team defense against the Jazz, who shot 59.5 percent and attempted 34 free throws.

The Pistons overcame their defensive shortcomings by grabbing a 33.3 percent of the available offense rebounds. For perspective, no team has grabbed such a high percentage of offensive rebounds in a season since the 2003-04 Jazz.

That’s talking about the past, though. As Bynum said, "maybe the future is now."

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Tags: Austin Daye Ben Wallace Chris Wilcox DaJuan Summers Greg Monroe John Kuester Richard Hamilton Rodney Stuckey Tayshaun Prince Tracy McGrady Will Bynum

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