Draft Subterfuge

Pistons hid intentions, knowing T-wolves were a threat to take KCP

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Pistons held their cards close to the vest in the days leading up to the 2013 Draft.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Joe Dumars and his staff put the draft behind them quickly and moved on to free agency, with various reports already linking them to meetings with a few of the most prominent available players.

In two days, the team’s Summer League traveling party heads to Orlando for practices leading to Sunday’s tipoff of five games over six days. So … busy times.

But before we delve too deeply into free agency and Summer League, let’s look a little more at last week’s draft with a perspective gained over the last few days.

It was no accident that the Pistons were rarely linked to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the weeks leading to the draft. They ran an extraordinarily covert campaign to keep it that way. Why? Because it soon became apparent to them that Minnesota, picking one spot behind the Pistons, was intently focused on coming out of Thursday’s draft with a shooting guard with great size.

The Timberwolves were widely reported to be aggressively seeking to trade up. Most felt they were targeting Victor Oladipo or perhaps Ben McLemore. Credible mock drafts consistently had Minnesota taking Caldwell-Pope at No. 9.

The Pistons’ front office probably noticed the workout list for the Timberwolves contained a deep crop of shooting guards with size. If there was any doubt that Minnesota’s apparent interest in a shooting guard with great size was real, it should be dispelled by these two facts: (1) after the Pistons drafted Caldwell-Pope at No. 8, Minnesota immediately traded down to take Utah’s two picks, 14 and 21, despite the fact that (2) C.J. McCollum, who was drafted 10th by Portland, was still available. The T-wolves pretty clearly grouped Caldwell-Pope with Oladipo and McLemore, then saw a big dropoff to the next wave that included Allen Crabbe, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others.

"It’s best to keep your thoughts as quiet as possible," Dumars said. "I knew that in the range we were at, that it was very likely he would go off the board at nine or 10. For us, it was better to sit there and keep it quiet in Oakland County and not say a lot. We just didn’t say a whole lot, but we paid attention to what everybody else was doing."

And, by not saying a whole lot, the Pistons were probably very pleased that draft buzz from outsiders perpetuated the belief that they were fixated on the merits of point guards Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and McCollum, who some front offices viewed as a shooting guard – Portland, which drafted Damian Lillard last year, likely one of them.

Had the Pistons’ interest in Caldwell-Pope become known, it’s reasonable to think Minnesota might have been extraordinarily motivated to move ahead of them, perhaps jumping up to No. 6 where New Orleans, in fact, eventually did trade out with Philadelphia, or to No. 4, where Charlotte took Cody Zeller, who quite possibly would have been still available at Minnesota’s spot.

As for Tony Mitchell being available at 37, I never anticipated that. When I put together the draft preview series for True Blue Pistons, I did individual profiles on 10 possibilities with the No. 8 pick – Caldwell-Pope among them – in addition to grouping Nerlens Noel and McLemore as being out of reach to the Pistons. I listed another seven players as long-shot possibilities at eight, with one of them, Dario Saric, eventually pulling out of the draft.

Then I listed an additional nine names as certain to be gone between 8 and 37. Mitchell was one of those nine, as were two others – Jeff Withey and Jamaal Franklin – who, indeed, wound up being available at 37. The unexpected run of international prospects in the first round (12) – some drafted solely because teams could keep them stashed overseas and not have them occupy salary cap space or count toward luxury tax bills – helped push down players like Mitchell, Withey and Franklin.

In the range where Mitchell was taken – the first third of the second round – the draft starts to get hit or miss. There are still a number of good players available, as a Pistons roster that includes Kyle Singler (33), Jonas Jerebko (39) and Khris Middleton (39) attests, but there are always players whose careers burn out quickly, too.

Mitchell’s talent screams lottery – many believed he would have been a late lottery pick had he come out after his freshman season at North Texas – but there’s a reason he was still available at 37, too. The Pistons understand those reasons. But they were comfortable they had a good handle on Mitchell. They interviewed him in Chicago – Mitchell admitted at the time that they roughed him up pretty good, asking pointed questions about his dip in productivity from freshman to sophomore years – but Joe D had an ace in the hole.

He was a high school contemporary of Johnny Jones, who grew up in Bastrop, La., not all that far from Dumars’ Natchitoches. Jones spent two years with Mitchell as his head coach at North Texas – 2010-11, when he was academically ineligible, then his freshman season – before taking over at LSU. They’d talked about Mitchell at length before the draft. The Pistons were satisfied that whatever kept Mitchell from sophomore stardom, it wasn’t an alarming character issue. It’s not unusual for players to struggle with a transition in coaching in college – the Pistons thought that was one reason Middleton’s junior season at Texas A&M wasn’t up to his sophomore production – and that probably factored into Mitchell’s dropoff.

The Pistons will set similar expectations for Mitchell as they did last year for Andre Drummond. Mitchell’s path to playing time won’t be as certain as Drummond’s was – in large measure because of Drummond’s ascension and the move of Greg Monroe to power forward – but the goal will be to get him to focus on playing hard and affecting games with his athleticism.

"Even though they play different positions, there’s a similar hopefulness coming in the front door with Tony that we had with Andre," assistant GM George David told me. "Can he consistently be the best athlete on the floor? With Drummond, all we wanted for him was to rebound, block shots and play hard. We’re going to keep it that simple with Tony."