A Snap Shot in Time

After 3 straight lottery hits, odds are with Pistons at No. 8 pick
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Nerlens Noel might indeed turn out to be a very good NBA player, perhaps even a great one. But it speaks to the uncertainty of this draft that a 206-pound center with a torn ACL who’ll miss a big chunk of his rookie season is the presumptive No. 1 pick.

The run-up to the draft is a strange time in which there is an intense focus on what players can’t do, the reverse of what happens once a guy’s been in the league a few years. At that point, he becomes an asset, trade or otherwise, based on what he can do, his strengths exploited by a good coach, his weaknesses understood and accommodated.

Which explains, in large measure, how Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond were nit-picked to the great good fortune of the Pistons in the weeks leading to the past three drafts. And gives hope that they’ll benefit again by the scrutiny due over the next four weeks that could send another gem into their arms at the No. 8 pick.

Think back three years to how Monroe was perceived. Passing ability was identified as Monroe’s biggest asset. And while that’s certainly been on display during his three seasons with the Pistons – something Lawrence Frank worked to incorporate into his offense, an attribute that argues for the success of a Monroe-Drummond pairing – it wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you’d tick off if someone who’d never seen him play asked for a scouting report.

There were major questions about whether Monroe would be able to score in the NBA because he played below the rim. There were also questions, for similar reasons regarding his perceived lack of athleticism, whether the rebounding prowess he’d exhibited at Georgetown would translate to the NBA. People wondered if he had enough fire in his belly.

There were concerns about Knight’s eventual position, whether he could run a team well enough to be a full-time point guard or whether he had enough size to be a starter at shooting guard. While he hasn’t definitively answered those questions through his first two seasons, the Pistons saw a pure basketball player with a peerless work ethic and a selfless attitude and believed whatever Knight was destined to become, he’d fulfill his potential. They still believe that, more so, in fact.

Drummond, as silly as it seems today, was questioned for his motor, which as it turned out became his calling card in tandem with his athleticism turned loose by that motor.

Meanwhile, while those players were being scrutinized for perceived flaws in the makeup of their games, other players gained momentum on the basis of flashy individual workouts during which scouts saw the potential for one special skill to blossom into NBA stardom. Golden State saw Ekpe Udoh as a budding defensive difference maker, sending Monroe tumbling to the Pistons at seven. Toronto saw Terrence Ross as a new-age Ray Allen-level shooter and sent Drummond spilling to the Pistons at nine.

Time will tell with the 2013 draft. It probably isn’t going to be as weak as the preponderance of experts, real or self-proclaimed, has been insisting this one is since the second the 2012 draft wrapped up. Like pretty much all drafts, somebody taken in the top five will flame out. And like pretty much all drafts, someone taken outside the top five, even outside the lottery, will within a year or two step forward as a future All-Star candidate.

Just as Golden State erred in taking Udoh over Monroe, the Warriors redeemed themselves the following year by taking Klay Thompson with the No. 11 pick, one spot after Sacramento took Jimmer Fredette.

It’s easy to excoriate the GMs who passed on Thompson, but even the Warriors would admit – though it might take truth serum to extract such an admission – they thought it unlikely Thompson would become what he is today.

And that’s today’s lesson. Personnel evaluation is nothing close to a science. It’s a snap shot in time. Thompson isn’t the same player he was when Golden State – and the 10 teams that passed on him – evaluated him. He was a Southern California kid of a famous father – former Lakers player Mychal Thompson, No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft by Portland – and wound up at Pac 12 outpost Washington State, which tells you he wasn’t exactly a McDonald’s All-American, either.

NBA teams aren’t evaluating finished products. It’s tough enough to determine what a player is at the time you draft him, given the variables in age and competition and the systems they’ve experienced, never mind what he might become under a completely different set of circumstances. Throw in an NBA paycheck as another variable – that first paycheck satisfies some, motivates others, has zero impact on others still – and the complicating factors multiply.

Pistons fans should at least take a peace of mind into the June 27 draft. Joe Dumars and his staff, with assistant general manager George David as the lynchpin, have a fairly remarkable record, especially since 2007 when the Pistons began to benefit from draft position after a long run of picking in the mid to low 20s.

Monroe and Drummond are on an All-Star path. Knight is, at minimum, a valuable rotation piece. Rodney Stuckey, despite his inconsistencies, exceeded the norm for a No. 15 pick. Jonas Jerebko was a second-round hit. Kyle Singler was a rookie revelation. Khris Middleton’s closing rush last season is moving him into the same discussion.

Joe D was at ease after Tuesday’s lottery results. I think he’d have relished the chance to take a shooting guard with deep range and athleticism like Ben McLemore had the fates blessed the Pistons with the No. 1 or 2 pick. But when he said, “We’re going to add another really nice piece to the core that we already have and we’ll move forward,” he was speaking from the perspective of a man both confident in the process that has led to recent draft success and aware that his major roster needs this off-season will be more readily addressed via the trade and free-agent markets made possible by the $20 million-plus in cap space he’s worked to create.

There will be plenty of twists and turns in the four weeks leading to the June 27 draft – risers and fallers, rumors and half-truths running rampant. I’m going to get flooded with arguments for and against nearly every player who’s even remotely a candidate to be the No. 8 pick. For everybody who loves what a Cody Zeller or a Shabazz Muhammad or a C.J. McCollum can do, somebody else hates what they can’t do. Chances are one among those players will turn out better than the consensus expects, and one will turn out unworthy of a top-10 pick.

Joe D’s track record says the one the Pistons take is more likely to fall into the former group than the latter.

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