Griffin, Then...?

Uncertainty swirls in a draft considered weak at the top
EDITOR’S NOTE: today begins a series looking at the 2009 NBA draft, to be held June 25. In today’s Part I, we’ll look at the players most unlikely to be available when the Pistons draft at 15.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – When the Pistons took Rodney Stuckey with the 15th pick two years ago, the draft unfolded along fairly predictable lines. The Pistons targeted four players: Stuckey, Florida State’s Al Thornton, Southern Cal’s Nick Young and Georgia Tech’s Thaddeus Young, hoping at least one from that group would be available to them.

It turns out two were. Thaddeus Young, somewhat surprisingly, was the first of the group to come off the board, going 12th to Philadelphia after his freshman year at Georgia Tech. The Pistons figured Thornton was the least likely to still be available, yet when New Orleans took Julian Wright 13th, they were ecstatic. It meant they’d have their choice of their two most coveted players, Stuckey or Thornton.

Early in the draft process, they were perhaps more focused on Thornton. But as the draft grew nearer, two things happened: They became convinced Thornton would be gone, perhaps going as high as No. 7 to Minnesota. The Timberwolves took a small forward from Florida, but it wasn’t Thornton. It was Corey Brewer of the University of Florida, who’d helped the Gators to consecutive national championships.

The second thing that happened was the Pistons falling hard for Stuckey. The Clippers picked ahead of them at 14 and had a need for a point guard. But they apparently thought Stuckey was a better fit at shooting guard, where they already had Cuttino Mobley and swingman Corey Maggette. So they went for Thornton. That left Stuckey for the Pistons. And Nick Young went one spot later, to Washington. That meant the four players the Pistons identified went within a span of five picks.

This year, the process doesn’t figure to be nearly as neat. The draft is widely viewed to be weak at the top. The only sure thing is that Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin will go No. 1 no matter who wins Tuesday’s draft lottery.

The draft looked thin even before an unusually high number of projected lottery picks decided not to declare for the draft. Kansas 7-foot sophomore Cole Aldrich; freshmen big men Ed Davis of North Carolina, Al Farouq-Aminu of Wake Forest and Greg Monroe of Georgetown; and Oklahoma combo guard Willie Warren, compared by some to Stuckey, all chose to return to college. All would have been gone, almost surely, by 15 – but they would have pushed better players within the Pistons’ grasp.

Other players who would have figured to interest the Pistons at 15 but won’t be in the draft include Ohio State sophomore wing Evan Turner, Iowa State mobile big man Craig Brackins and Kentucky power forward Patrick Patterson.

After Griffin, the next players off the board, in some order, figure to be Spanish teen sensation Ricky Rubio, a point guard; UConn’s 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet; Arizona power forward Jordan Hill; and Arizona State shooting guard James Harden.

That would be the consensus top five, though with more than five weeks to go until draft day – and individual workouts only recently having gotten under way – much can change.

But it’s unlikely that the draft will come into focus with the same clarity as the ’07 draft between now and June 25, meaning on draft night the Pistons might not have a much better idea which players will be off the board at 15 than they do today.

Even if three or four more names are added to the list, that will still leave the Pistons with a wider variance of prospects to probe in greater detail than usual.

The next wave of prospects after the consensus top five probably would start with Southern Cal freshman wing DeMar DeRozan, an electric athlete who underperformed for much of the season but got rolling late and played well throughout the Pac-10 tournament and into the NCAA tournament.

Another freshman with a similarly high ceiling is Tyreke Evans of Memphis. Based more on athleticism and potential than consistently high production, Louisville’s Earl Clark is another who seems only a distant possibility to be available at 15. And even though opinion varies greatly on Brandon Jennings, the teen who spurned college basketball for a year of Italian professional ball, most draft watchers still expect he’s a lottery pick.

That’s still only nine names. And many scouts believe the chance of landing a quality starter will be just as good at 15 this year as at six.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll look at a dozen prospects who could be the choice at No. 15. We’ll also devote three parts of the series to examining which players could interest the Pistons with their three second-round picks – at 36, 39 and 44. There is some sentiment that despite the draft’s weakness at the top, the quality available in the second round is at least comparable to last season.