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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Pistons preview with James Edwards III

Getting a little insight about Thursday’s opponent.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is James Edwards III, who covers the Detroit Pistons for The Athletic.

How would you classify this rebuilding season for Detroit? Where does it stand compared to October? What’s the vision being established?

I think it would be deemed a success. Many who follow the Pistons probably had their worries the first two months of the season, but since early February, this has been a good basketball team. The team was relatively healthy for the first time in early February for about a month. Cade Cunningham really found his footing. Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey were good. Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley, as well. The last two-ish months have been everything Detroit envisioned from the start. And, oh, they’ll likely land another top-five pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Who would you consider the young core of this team and how do those players mesh?

Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart are the primary three young pieces. Killian Hayes, who was drafted before Bey and Stewart, is in the midst of the best stretch of basketball of his young, up-and-down career. The optimism with him is as high as it’s been since draft night. Marvin Bagley, Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo are pieces I could see hanging around for a while as the central pieces of the second unit.

Cunningham’s versatility, smarts and overall gravity allows him to fit with any lineup head coach Dwane Casey can put together. That’s part of why they took him No. 1 overall. Both Cunningham and Hayes have benefited greatly from Bagley’s vertical spacing. Stewart is the anchor of the defense and, I believe, will one day shoot the three-ball at an average-or-better clip.

Bey, like Cunningham, can play in any group, due to his shooting chops and blossoming creations skills. Figuring out the Bagley-Stewart frontcourt will take some time, primarily because one will need to space the floor at some point. However, if that happens, I think it works well.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Joel Embiid and Stewart. Embiid is, arguably, going to be the MVP, and he’s massive. Stewart is undersized for his position but, as you all know, scrappy as all hell. That’s just going to be a fun matchup to watch, as it always is. Embiid will give Stewart the space to shoot the three-ball. I’m curious to see if he’ll be as aggressive as he was in the Brooklyn game the other night.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Saddiq Bey’s improvement as a dribble-drive creator. A year ago, he was strictly a spot-up shooter, at least that’s where he was efficient. This year, he’s improved immensely at creating his own shot, working the mid-range game and even creating for others. I’ve been impressed with what he’s done, even though his shooting has been streaky this season.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

I don’t know if I’d call this a disappointment, but I came into the season expecting Isaiah Stewart to shoot more threes out of the gate. He barely shot any during the first half of the year. The attempts have only recently picked up. Casey said he and the staff wanted Stewart to “worry about his day job” this season and work inside-out on his shooting, kicking the can down the road on him truly trying to make a mark as a distance shooter. Makes sense. However, I did think we’d see Stewart attempt to become more of a floor-spacer early on in his second season, based on the positive signs he showed his rookie campaign.