The second-year guard has had a rocky sophomore season. Not because he hasn’t taken steps from his promising rookie year. His finishing at the rim has gone from sporadic to a strength. Of all guards with at least 3 shots at the rim per game (53 players total), Ivey ranks 15th, hitting 66.2% of his shots.
But trust from his coach is a different story. Ivey has been sidelined, relegated to the bench, and often found himself uninvolved in plays in the first half of the season. Monty Williams detractors say he unreasonably hates Ivey and is actively preventing one of the few positive contributors from being on the floor in a position to succeed. If I were to give Williams a bit of the benefit of the doubt, I would say that Williams is caught between knowing Ivey is best individually with the ball in his hands, but that Williams also doesn’t trust Ivey as an organizer and facilitator, so he prefers to put the ball in the hands of others and Ivey is left trying to subsist on scraps. He also seems to instinctively want someone more reliable with the ball in his hands to share the floor with Cade as Cunningham can be prone to damaging mental mistakes of his own.
Also, Ivey’s defense is an issue, full stop.
This is a conundrum when Cunningham is healthy because he demands so much of the offensive load run through him. With Cunningham out with an injury, Killian Hayes struggling to rediscover even the sliver of offensive game he showed earlier in the season, and so few obvious playmakers available, it’s been harder and harder to not just put the ball in Ivey’s hands and letting him cook.
Wednesday against the Wolves, Ivey was cooking. He not only scored that 3-pointer to bring the Pistons within six against the NBA’s top-ranked defense, but he matched a career-high with 32 points, and he did so efficiently. Ivey used just 22 shots and hit four of his six three-point attempts. He had six assists and just two turnovers. He ran the offense and displayed obvious chemistry with Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart. He also was able to scan the floor well on drive and find the open shooter, whether it be Bojan Bogdanovic or Kevin Knox.
All those fans begging Williams to let Ivey cook got their wish. Maybe it was because of Ivey stepping up after some tough love. Maybe it was through injuries and attrition to the roster. Maybe it was because the team held an organizational meeting and shamed Williams to do what was so bleeding obvious to everyone else.
Whatever it was, it’s finally happening. The question is, will it last?
There’s no reason to say it shouldn’t as long as Williams allows it. And there is no reason to think it can’t work alongside Cade Cunningham provided Williams is able to scheme up some defensive improvement outside of his two still-young, still defensively deficient guards.
I’ll outsource a bit of the analysis and clear prose on Ivey to James Edwards at The Athletic, who beat me to the punch on an Ivey article.
Since Jan. 9, when Ivey has had the ball in his hands more and been given the freedom to create his shot from the top of the key, he’s taking 5.4 attempts per game in the restricted area (second highest on the team) and converting on 77.8 percent of those attempts, per NBA.com. From the end of October until Jan. 8, Ivey was averaging just 3.7 attempts in the restricted area (fifth highest) and converted on less than 64 percent of those attempts. For someone who can blow past anyone and finish inside, it’s confusing why it took so long for him to be given the opportunity. But now that he’s had it, Detroit has been better for it.
When Cunningham comes back, if Ivey can stay above water as a 3-point shooter (north of 34%) and keep the assist to turnover ratio better than 2:1, I think that’s the threshold for being that complementary piece that helps Cade, keeps the offense flowing, and will provide plenty of opportunities for Ivey to be the explosive scorer and playmaker he is.
If that remains the case, perhaps we will look at the first 40-ish games of the Monty Williams-Jaden Ivey pairing as the rocky beginning to what eventually became a beautiful partnership. One where we no longer fear Ivey being sold for 40 cents on the dollar in some get-rich-quick scheme doomed to fail. One where, instead, Ivey joins Cade and hopefully Duren and Ausar Thompson as enduring building blocks toward a dangerous Pistons team.
Ivey, to his credit, has always said all the right things about his role on the team, his playing time, and his relationship with Williams.
“Like I said, I’m trying to learn,” Ivey said after Wednesday’s game, per The Athletic. “Each and every day is a learning opportunity for me. Like (Williams) is still trying to figure out everyone and the system, I’m still trying to figure out as much as I can. We’re growing as a team. Sometimes you find growth in the losses.”
It’s time to keep Ivey cooking. That means more integration into the starting lineup, and likely more responsibility as a backup point guard or primary initiator when Cunningham sits.
Once Monte Morris is finally healthy, it will be a true test of where Ivey stands, how everything could potentially work together, and if Monty will be able to resist the temptation to sideline Ivey in favor of a reliable veteran ball handler who won’t make mistakes, but also can’t create offense out of nothing like Ivey can.
Hopefully, no matter what comes, this Ivey sticks around, and does it while wearing a Pistons uniform.