Draft a Puzzle

Noel, McLemore top the field, but who would Pistons take at No. 1?

Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel
Ben McLemore and Nerlens Noel have separated themselves from the draft pack.
Ronald Martinez/Andy Lyons (Getty Images Sport)
Given that the strong consensus heading into the June 27 draft holds that Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore are 1-2 or 2-1 atop the board, followed by a thick muddle, you wonder if the GM who’ll have to work hardest at forcing a grin come lottery night will be the guy who pulls the No. 3 pick.

Noel and McLemore are considered potential stars from a draft otherwise thought to be devoid of them. If you buy that a similar talent can be had through the top 10 as at No. 3, then the reality is that you’re paying 50 percent more – last year’s No. 3 pick, Bradley Beal, was slotted at $4.1 million; last year’s No. 7, Harrison Barnes, at $2.8 million – for a similar player.

Given that the Pistons will be well under the cap this year, and intend to use their cap space to leverage more talent on to the roster, that extra $1.3 million might come in very handy on the open market.

The Pistons have a 5 percent chance (OK, 4.91 percent) of landing the No. 3 pick, slightly better than their chances of getting the No. 2 (4.16 percent) or the No. 1 pick (3.6 percent). Their likeliest landing spots, far and away, are at No. 7 (59.93 percent) or No. 8 (25.3 percent).

But just for fun, what would they do if they landed at 1, 2 or 3?

  • No. 1 – Big men and point guards have dominated recent No. 1 picks: Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Derrick Rose and Greg Oden have been first picks in five of the last six drafts. Only power forward Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick in 2009, breaks the mold.

    So the odds are pretty good that most of the 14 lottery teams would take Noel should they land the No. 1 pick. He’s the overwhelming choice as the best big man, despite the fact he might not be ready for training camp as he recovers from a mid-season ACL tear and subsequent surgery. And there’s no point guard considered in the Rose-Wall-Irving class this season.

    That might not have been the case had Marcus Smart decided to enter the draft instead of returning for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State. It’s fair to say, at least, that Smart would have joined Noel and McLemore as the only players certain to be taken ahead of the Pistons should they stay at No. 7 after the lottery takes place.

    If the Pistons land the No. 1 pick, would they consider Noel given the sum of these three facts: (1) the presence of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond on the roster; (2) Noel’s ACL status, even if they’re satisfied a full recovery is likely; and (3) the pretty obvious fit McLemore represents?

    Noel isn’t a duplicate of Drummond, necessarily. Drummond outweighs Noel by 80 pounds, after all. Noel, like the player he replaced at Kentucky, Anthony Davis, might project better to power forward than center. But both Noel and Drummond are athletic big guys who’ll earn their draft status by rebounding and blocking shots. It would be a challenge to play them together.

    McLemore, on the other hand, offers a compelling blend of skills the Pistons crave: size and superb athleticism for his position, the potential to be an elite perimeter shooter, and a chance to be a No. 1 scoring option. McLemore would be the Pistons’ likely No. 1 pick, the evidence suggests.

  • No. 2 – ESPN’s Chad Ford recently listed nine of the 14 lottery teams as likely to pick Noel should they get the No. 1 pick, the other five – Pistons included – going for McLemore.

    Would they be certain to take Noel with the No. 2 pick if the No. 1 pick falls to one of those other teams that covets McLemore? I think they would, with this caveat: It might have as much to do with how they gauge the way their peers perceive Noel’s value.

    In other words, if the Pistons get the No. 2 pick and they are comfortable that Noel would upgrade their roster – that he would give them a No. 3 big man capable of subbing in for either Monroe or Drummond with little dropoff – then they’d grab him without hesitation, knowing that they would at least have some significant trade leverage against teams without a Monroe-Drummond tandem to block Noel’s path to big minutes.

    So they’d either have the consensus best player in the draft or the likely realized potential of converting him into multiple assets to satisfy more immediate needs.

    Of course, if they get the No. 2 pick and Noel goes first, the choice would be pretty clear-cut at that point: McLemore.

  • No. 3 – It’s always possible Joe Dumars and his cabinet don’t see a clear delineation, as the consensus holds, between the top two and the field. But let’s play along and say they do.
In that event, the best-case scenario for them might well be to have two teams picking in close proximity behind them with similar needs at a position where they both agree on the pecking order.

There are three point guards – Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and C.J. McCollum – that are three pretty different players. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to ranking them 1-2-3. But if the Pistons are fortunate enough to have two teams picking behind them who covet the same player, suddenly their pick at No. 3 gains leverage. The trouble with that theory? There aren’t a lot of lottery teams looking for point guards this year.

The better bet might be big men. Even though there’s a glut of power forward-center types in the top 25, it’s conceivable that Maryland’s Alex Len, for instance, would cause two or more teams that need a center and see him as the only one ready to contribute to ensure his selection by trading up to get him.

If the Pistons draw No. 3, don’t see a clear-cut choice and find no real market for trading back, who would they end up taking? The list would run at least six or seven deep, probably, and almost certainly would include the player they’re likely to draft should they stay at No. 7.

Anthony Bennett would offer an intriguingly different skill set to throw in the mix next to Drummond and Monroe at power forward. Burke, if front offices are convinced his size won’t hold him back – and what Burke measures at next week’s Chicago draft combine will be eagerly anticipated – could be a potentially dynamic point guard.

Victor Oladipo might prove a better player than McLemore down the road, though his offensive game is less polished. Georgetown’s Otto Porter seems like one of this draft’s safest picks at a position, small forward, where the Pistons finished the season with rookies Kyle Singler and Khris Middleton atop the depth chart.

Len and Cody Zeller, like Noel, would give the Pistons enviable frontcourt depth. Maybe they’ll find more to like about McCollum or Carter-Williams than Burke as the draft evaluation process unfolds.

Stay tuned. I’ll be in Chicago next week and we’ll have extensive draft preview coverage from then until the June 27 draft.