Who’s No. 8?

Pistons could benefit if high-upside prospects slide as GMs play it safe

Otto Porter, Anthony Bennett, Trey Burke
The Pistons have several options at No. 8 in the June 27 draft.
Al Bello/Jeff Bottari/Jonathan Daniel (NBAE/Getty)
The most frequently asked question at Pistons Mailbag these days goes like this: “Who are the Pistons most likely to draft at No. 8?” That’s kind of like asking who’ll finish eighth in the Indy 500 before the race is run. It helps to know who’ll finish first through seventh.

Let me put it another way. Asked that question each of the last three springs, here are three names I would not have answered: Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond.

I don’t think Joe Dumars, George David and company are sitting back and waiting for another unexpected name to drop to them on June 27. They’re going about the work of assessing 100 players or so, an unusually large number simply because they’re drafting at three distinctly different areas – the top 10, the middle, the bottom 10.

But I’ll guarantee they’ll be spending as much time looking at Otto Porter and Anthony Bennett and Trey Burke – players widely projected to be off the board when their time on the clock at No. 8 rolls around – as they are on the perceived next tier of players. That’s a group that includes Cody Zeller, C.J. McCollum, Michael Carter-Williams, Shabazz Muhammad and Alex Len – and a few more, to be sure – that seems more likely to produce the next prospect to don a Pistons baseball cap while shaking David Stern’s hand.

There is a fundamental truth about this draft: The guys picking at the top wouldn’t necessarily swap places with teams like the Pistons – not without adequate compensation, at least – but those GMs will make their pick with extraordinary trepidation. GMs picking in the top five are expected to come away with impact players, franchise changers. Never mind that the universal overview of the 2013 draft is that it likely contains no such players.

When you spend the No. 3 pick on a player who’ll have some difficulty earning a starting berth on a 25- or 30-win team, the GM – fairly or unfairly – is going to come under public fire that goes beyond reasonable scrutiny.

Expectations are likely a little more realistic where the Pistons will be picking, at No. 8. Joe Dumars has really thick skin – you don’t guard Michael Jordan intrepidly during one of the NBA’s most pitched rivalries of any era without a Hall of Fame hide – and I don’t think he’s ever considered the merits of playing it safe to ease media and fan backlash. But there is a point in every draft where it’s easier to gamble on an upside/downside pick. I don’t know exactly where the break starts, but it’s certainly not in the top five.

Take a look at the 2010 draft. Indiana is in the Eastern Conference finals largely as a product of picking Paul George 10th, two spots after the Clippers took Al Farouq-Aminu and one spot after the Kings grabbed Jimmer Fredette. Great pick by the Pacers, no doubt. But had Indiana been choosing fifth, say, it would have been a tougher call to gamble on hitting George’s downside as a middling recruit who was good but a long way from dominant for a so-so Fresno State team.

The Pistons jumped all over Andre Drummond at No. 9 last year. I knew they’d followed him intensely throughout his only season at UConn because he fit their needs as if sent from central casting – or, rather, his profile before suiting up for UConn did. But his UConn season was so starkly lackluster that it might have been tough for the Pistons to draft Drummond at No. 2 or 3 had they pulled a top-three pick last June.

And even they can’t really tell you if they would have taken him there, though they surely would have kicked his tires until their toes were bruised. When they got the No. 9 pick, that effectively shut them out of working out the other prospects they would have considered at No. 2 – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Thomas Robinson, et al. They didn’t have the picture, picking ninth, that they would have had if they’d drawn the second pick. That’s why they can’t know for sure what they might have done with a top-three pick last June.

I think they ultimately would have seen the same things in Drummond that made them confident in taking him at No. 9. But there wouldn’t have been the same level of enthusiasm for taking him at No. 2 that there was at getting him seven spots lower. No so easy for Joe D to come out, minutes after the pick as he did, and say the Pistons were going to exercise all necessary patience with Drummond if they’d taken him No. 2. The public uproar when Lawrence Frank didn’t start Drummond for the first half of the season, before his back injury? Imagine what it might have been like if the Pistons had spent the second pick on him.

So, yeah, there is some degree of liberation for decision-makers picking eighth, as opposed to third, in a draft perceived as substandard. The Pistons are going to wind up with a player perhaps less likely to be a certain contributor than Ben McLemore or Otto Porter – the most logical choices had they wound up at No. 2 or No. 3 this season – but they’ll come away getting someone who has a chance to be this year’s Paul George or Andre Drummond.

Maybe that’s Zeller, who’ll be used very differently in the NBA than he was at Indiana. Maybe that’s McCollum, who could hit the NBA with all the impact of a Damian Lillard. Maybe that’s Bennett, should he slip as Monroe and Knight and Drummond did before him because of concerns over his surgically repaired shoulder or his battle with asthma.

Even the most informed mock drafts are largely guesswork at this point, still four weeks from the draft. The top 10 picks have barely begun their round of individual workouts, the final piece of the draft process that breaks ties. Teams don’t come to decisions until time forces them to do so. The Pistons, meanwhile, are in full evaluation mode, ready to pounce should the 2013 draft send them another unexpected tumbler, or perhaps liberated by their draft spot to gamble on the upside of a potential franchise changer.