Options at 8

Cap space gives Pistons flexibility to draft without regard for roster

CJ McCollum, Michael Carter-Williams
Could any of these players fall to the Pistons at No. 8?
Ronald Martinez/Ezra Moore/NBA/Getty Images Sport (NBAE/Getty)
I took a look in Monday’s True Blue Pistons blog at the consensus top seven and laid odds on each of those players’ chances of slipping to No. 8 and joining Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond among a core that was never supposed to be available to the Pistons.

Today I’ll look at the five other players profiled over the past month as possibilities with the No. 8 pick and how things appear to be shaking out with the draft two days away.

Before we get to that, keep in mind that four days after the draft is the start of free agency, and the timing of those two events is a complicating factor for a team with the more than $20 million in cap space the Pistons are about to possess.

We don’t know what Joe Dumars knows – or has reason to believe, at least – about what is going to happen when the doors to free agency open on July 1. But it’s fair to assume that because the Pistons opened the door to free agency 2013 exactly one year ago – two days before the 2012 draft, when they traded Ben Gordon to Charlotte – there is a huge body of exploratory evidence at his fingertips for what might happen.

He’s been talking to his peers around the league with increasing intensity since before the three-team deal that brought in Jose Calderon from Toronto and sent Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye to Memphis. You can presume some groundwork on other fronts was laid in the weeks between that deal and the February trade deadline, perhaps being revisited now.

The Pistons go into the draft with a hole at point guard, given that both Calderon and Will Bynum are pending free agents. Brandon Knight provides a fallback, though, with a return to the position at which he’s spent the bulk of his career giving the Pistons wiggle room to draft almost without regard for their roster, thanks also to the cap space. You can plug a lot of holes with $20 million.

Against that backdrop, the Pistons will assess these five (at least) players, assuming chalk holds among the top seven picks, which is no better than a 50-50 proposition. In fact, there are whispers involving four of these players – all but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – that could see them going ahead of the Pistons and, simultaneously, pushing down one of the consensus top seven.

  1. Cody Zeller – Before Zeller surprised some by not entering the draft a year ago, he was widely seen as a likely top-five pick. It’s impossible to say how the draft evaluation process would have altered that perception, but it makes little sense that a year later, in a draft widely seen as spotty, after a sophomore season that saw Zeller improve statistically for a No. 1 seed that won the Big Ten title, he somehow is in danger of falling out of the top 10. An ESPN.com mock draft revealed on Tuesday lists Zeller as a dark horse for Orlando at No. 2 and links him to Phoenix at No. 5, as well.

    The case for Zeller: Despite taking Monroe and Drummond in the last three drafts, the Pistons have room for a third big man, especially given Monroe’s ability to play either spot and Zeller’s inside-outside versatility.

    The case against Zeller: Would Zeller be happy coming to a team with two young big men ahead of him, knowing that even if minutes are available, he’ll eventually have to compete for a second contract in a marketplace that might well judge him in a harsher light if he remains a reserve behind Drummond and Monroe?

  2. C.J. McCollum – McCollum might well prove to be the most certain scoring force to emerge from this draft class. Even though he comes to the NBA as a four-year college player, he’s still just 21. It can’t hurt McCollum’s case that two players to whom he has been compared to varying degrees, Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, have succeeded above their draft slots despite similar small-college backgrounds. McCollum has worked out for multiple teams picking ahead of the Pistons.

    The case for McCollum: The quality the Pistons probably desire more than anything is providing Maurice Cheeks a consistent scorer to write into his lineup card every night. McCollum gives him that, if he meets expectations, and he does it in a variety of ways, including deep shooting, an area the Pistons must improve.

    The case against McCollum: What the Pistons think and what outsiders think on this point could be radically different, but if McCollum is the pick there will be immediate questions about how he and Knight fit – who’s the point guard, who’s the shooting guard? Having Mo Cheeks on board probably means the Pistons have an idea, perhaps one that involves a throwback two-guard front that shares responsibilities.

  3. Michael Carter-Williams – After not playing a major role in his first year at Syracuse, when a loaded roster included Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine as the starting backcourt, Carter-Williams had flashes of dominance as a sophomore. At 6-foot-6 with an obvious feel for playmaking, Carter-Williams’ size would give whoever drafts him matchup advantages and lineup flexibility. Carter-Williams could go to any of the three teams picking directly ahead of the Pistons – Phoenix, New Orleans or Sacramento.

    The case for Carter-Williams: If the Pistons are convinced Carter-Williams has a good chance of realizing his upside, then concerns about Knight being at a size disadvantage too many nights at shooting guard would be diminished. The Pistons could cross-match and let Carter-Williams guard rangy shooting guards. And a young point guard with a feel for running the pick-and-roll would be a nice complement to Drummond and Monroe.

    The case against Carter-Williams: The team that takes him will be making a leap of faith that his lack of shooting range will either (a) be readily improved over time, as happens with many young players with spotty shooting records in college or (b) won’t diminish the potential of Cheeks’ offense to operate efficiently in part because Carter-Williams’ size and vision will create easier scoring chances for others. Also, unlike McCollum, drafting Carter-Williams might have ripple effects on the appeal of returning to the Pistons for free agents Calderon and Bynum.

  4. Shabazz Muhammad – After Muhammad dazzled NBA personnel evaluators at the heavily scouted Nike Hoop Summit in 2012, he was considered right there with Nerlens Noel as being the likely No. 1 pick in 2013. He averaged 18 points a game as a UCLA freshman, certainly a reasonable number in a major college conference. Yet no one would be shocked Thursday if Muhammad, who has worked out for Sacramento at No. 7, slides out of the lottery. Has the anti-Muhammad backlash gone too far the other way, not unlike what happened to Drummond a year ago?

    The case for Muhammad: Arron Afflalo, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook before him all produced in the NBA at levels above their UCLA projection. It’s reasonable to go back and look at Muhammad’s dominance before arriving at UCLA and believe he’ll follow a similar path. A high-scoring small forward would slot in beautifully next to Monroe and Drummond.

    The case against Muhammad: He’s a 6-foot-6 small forward who recorded a mere 27 assists all season for the Bruins. He appeared to have a very limited right hand based on his freshman season. If he doesn’t score at a high level and do it efficiently in the NBA, some question whether he brings anything else to the table.

  5. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Of everybody we profiled over the past month for potential No. 8 picks, Caldwell-Pope is the only one almost certain to be there. On paper, there might not be much that separates him and McLemore. Caldwell-Pope brings prototypical size (6-foot-6) to his position and showed plenty of evidence as a Georgia sophomore that he’ll be a very good NBA 3-point shooter, perhaps an elite one eventually.

    The case for Caldwell-Pope: If the Pistons go into the draft unsure that they can land a proven veteran to step in at shooting guard and if Cheeks sees Knight as more of a point guard, the appeal of Caldwell-Pope would increase dramatically. That would be especially true if McCollum is gone or if the Pistons wonder if he could handle the physical grind of defending shooting guards.

    The case against Caldwell-Pope: Is the momentum Caldwell-Pope has gained since the Chicago draft combine to be believed or trusted? He had a terrific second half of the season – Caldwell-Pope was named SEC Player of the Year despite playing for a team that failed to play in either the NCAA tournament or NIT – but is that enough to warrant the No. 8 pick?