What direction the Pistons might go in next month’s draft and free agency after that tops the list of hot topics in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Rob (@RobATLTV): Will Skal Labissiere be there for the Pistons and would he fit with Andre Drummond?
Langlois: I’ve looked at the top-rated draft prospects and separated them into three groups – those who are slam-dunks to be gone when the Pistons pick at 18, a group nine deep right now; another group likely to be gone, a list of five; and a third bunch where it’s 50-50 they’ll be available to the Pistons. I’ve got Labissiere in the middle group right now, likely to be gone. I’d give it no more than a 25 percent chance he’s still on the board after 17 picks – but that’s with six weeks to go before the draft and before the combine and individual workouts. Much can change. As to whether he’d fit or not, your guess is as good as mine at this point. He showed exciting potential in flashes at Kentucky, but his freshman season was largely a disappointment. But you hear names like Amare Stoudemire and Myles Turner when scouts talk about his potential and in a draft regarded as so-so by most, there comes a point when the sure things are gone and teams become a little more willing to roll the dice on boom-or-bust types. Among those who fall loosely under that umbrella in this draft, Labissiere will probably be first to go. He’s a native of Haiti who has played very little organized basketball. He’s going to require a lot of projection, but it’s possible he blossoms quickly once put in the NBA environment where basketball will be a full-time devotion. If Labissiere hits the high end of projections, he’d fit ideally with Drummond – a 7-foot rim protector who can stretch the floor offensively is the prototype for what Stan Van Gundy would want in an additional piece for his current frontcourt. It’s not likely he can get all of those things in one package elsewhere. That might make it too tempting to pass up Labissiere on the off chance he’s still around when the Pistons draft.
Dravens (Manila, Philippines): As a 24/7 Pistons fan, I’d like to suggest drafting Henry Ellenson in the first round if he drops and get your opinion on Chinanu Onuaka in the second round. He could be a diamond in the rough like Drummond.
Langlois: Ellenson will be gone in the lottery, Dravens, and most likely in the top 10. Onauaka is currently ranked No. 49 by DraftExpress.com and the Pistons pick, yup, 49th. Based on how Stan Van Gundy valued free-throw shooting as an essential skill in a backup center as the Pistons identified Aron Baynes as their big man of choice to back up Andre Drummond last summer, they might be scared off by Onauka’s 58 percent showing as a Louisville sophomore.
Souichi (@SouichiTerada26): What are the chances the Pistons actually draft Denzel Valentine in your opinion?
Langlois: Slim, only because the chances they’ll draft any particular player aren’t great. Valentine has another thing working against him, though. He’s a wing player in the NBA, probably one who’d have trouble guarding bigger small forwards, which means shooting guard is almost certainly his best and maybe his only NBA position. And the Pistons simply have a stacked roster at that spot with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Jodie Meeks and Darrun Hilliard on board. The asterisk I’d place on that sentiment, though, is that if it comes to their pick at 18 and the Pistons believe that Valentine is not only the best player left on the board but clearly a level above every other option, then they’d take him and work out the roster complications in July, August or September. And they’d have to do something because it’s not tenable to carry that many players at one position.
Duke (Burnsville, Minn.): Since we need a backup point guard who can create, any chance if Jeremy Lin opts out that Stan Van Gundy would go after him? I think he can fit that need off the bench and when Reggie Jackson has off days, Lin can pick him up.
Langlois: There is almost no chance Lin wouldn’t choose to opt out, Duke. He’s scheduled to make $2.2 million next season. No one would be surprised if he quadruples that in a first-year salary and gets a full four-year offer in a market loaded with teams flush with cap space. There is also a premium on guards who can create, as you suggest, and are especially good in pick-and-roll situations. Lin also proved capable of playing alongside Kemba Walker in Charlotte, making him even more valuable. There will be a very robust market for him. I don’t think there’s much doubt the Pistons would be interested, but the key is will they be willing to go as high as the market is likely to go for Lin. The upper level of the market for Lin might be beyond their reach or higher than they’ll commit to going. They might be looking to identify the player most likely to blow up next season as Lin did in the right situation with Charlotte.
Zach (Sarasota, Fla.): Why did the Pistons trade Jonas Jerebko away last season? He was a good player for us. He could make threes, play multiple positions and was a high-energy guy. Now that we need a backup power forward who can stretch the floor, I feel like we let a good one in Jerebko leave for not much in return.
Langlois: He was two months away from free agency when the Pistons traded him, Zach, and it was very unlikely there would have been mutual interest in a return at that point. The Pistons traded him because they had an immediate need for a small forward after trading away Kyle Singler in the deal for Reggie Jackson. Jerebko can play small forward in a pinch, but it’s not his best NBA position. It’s possible Jerebko will be a free agent in July. Boston holds an option on Jerebko’s reported $5 million deal for next season. Given that he held a fairly prominent role and even wound up starting late in the playoff series with Atlanta on top of the fact he’s signed for a very reasonable salary considering the expected spike coming with the rising cap, you’d expect the Celtics to hang on to him. But Boston could have grand designs of signing two superstars this summer, in which case Danny Ainge might roll the dice and create every bit of space possible. The Celtics also hold the option on the contract of another ex-Piston, Amir Johnson – that one for a reported $12 million.
Nicholas (Hudsonville, Mich.): Looking toward free agency and seeing what players are available, I think there are really underrated players who fit the power forward/center role. What are your thoughts on Jon Leuer?
Langlois: Interesting guy, Nicholas. In his fifth season last year in Phoenix, he got 27 starts – easily the most of his career – and averaged 19 minutes a game. I would have expected a much higher percentage of his shots to have come from the 3-point line than the 24 percent he finished at. But he made 38 percent from the arc and, in a Van Gundy offense, the percentage of his shots that come from the 3-point arc probably goes up. He’s also a pretty good rebounder, averaging 10.7 per 36 minutes for Phoenix last season. Pretty easy to guess that Leuer will be one of the players the Pistons thoroughly vet, given that he’s an unrestricted free agent and is the bigger power forward the Pistons have at the top of their to-do list – along with backup point guard – for their off-season. But they’ll start with a very long list. How Leuer stacks up when their internal discussions conclude is the question nobody can answer at this point.
Jonathan (Grand Rapids, Mich.): Is there any chance we get Andrew Nicholson? He is an average big man with great range. He also would minimize the dropoff in bench production. Orlando does not seem interested, so could we go after him?
Langlois: You guys are combing those free-agent lists pretty aggressively this week. Kudos! Nicholson, unlike Leuer, is restricted. That complicates any pursuit of him, Jonathan. The Pistons have yet to present an offer sheet to a restricted free agent in Stan Van Gundy’s two off-seasons. Like Leuer, Nicholson is an efficient scorer from both sides of the 3-point arc and takes a higher percentage of his shots, 37 percent last year, from the 3-point line, making 36 percent – slightly above the league average. There were reports that Nicholson and his agent were encouraging Orlando to deal him at the trade deadline to a place where he could get more playing time heading into free agency. I’m not sure anybody really knows what to expect as far as Orlando’s determination to keep him or not. The Magic have a number of young players and tons of cap space. They also have a team option on Ersan Ilyasova’s contract. If they decline the option on Ilyasova to create more cap space, then perhaps they’ll be more inclined to want to keep Nicholson around.
Vance (Detroit): What do you think are the chances of us bringing back both Brandon Jennings and Ersa Ilyasova? That would really improve our bench.
Langlois: I wonder if Stan Van Gundy would take that today if he could and eliminate the uncertainty of free agency. Ilyasova only gets to free agency if Orlando declines its option for 2016-17, as I wrote in response to Jonathan’s question. But he’s a known quantity and Van Gundy got pretty much just what he’d hoped to when he traded to get him from Milwaukee last May. Before packaging Ilyasova and Jennings to get Tobias Harris, Van Gundy spoke publicly about his vision for how Jennings would have a role with the Pistons even with Reggie Jackson entrenched as the starting point guard. He also said he’d talked to Jennings about that role. I don’t imagine either side has forgotten that exchange. You can bet the Pistons – who knew backup point guard would be a priority for next season even before trading Jennings, given his free-agent status – scouted Orlando pretty intently after the trade deadline gauging Jennings’ progress. If they saw signs he was shaking off the effects of his Achilles tendon rupture, you’d have to guess he’d be among their top targets at point guard.
Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Stanley Johnson and the Pistons’ first-round pick for Serge Ibaka. Who walks away from the table and why? There are rumblings that Ibaka is unhappy with a lesser role in OKC.
Langlois: What does Kevin Durant do in free agency this season? That’s probably central to answering your question with any shred of intelligent speculation, Buk. And with Oklahoma City up 3-2 in its series with San Antonio right now, I can’t imagine Durant is thinking about leaving. And if the Thunder keep rolling, that probably mollifies whatever bruised feelings Ibaka might have about being the third wheel behind Durant and Russell Westbrook. If Durant leaves Oklahoma City, Thunder management will have a blank canvas to remake their roster. I would expect they’d still be 100 percent committed to retaining Westbrook, but maybe they’d want to recast the roster around him. Ibaka, like Westbrook, will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season. For that reason, the Pistons would be taking a pretty significant risk in offering up their 2015 lottery pick and their 2016 No. 1 pick. And while Stan Van Gundy might be to a point where he’d now consider that type of deal – risking a little bit of the future for an immediate boost – I suspect he’d be reluctant to do it for a player only under team control for one season.
Deviaire (Pontiac, Mich.): Any chance the Pistons look at Thon Maker? Very raw skills, but seems like Giannis Antetokuonmpo he can play every position and has a decent three.
Langlois: If they look at him, my best guess is that it wouldn’t be with their pick at 18 but at 49. Would he still be available? Maybe. Probably not. He’s a mystery man at this point. Scouts just don’t have much to go on with him. You’re right that his skills are raw. I haven’t seen anything to indicate he has the athleticism of Antetokuonmpo.
Cody (@GOODmusicCody8): Thoughts on signing Baron Davis to fill the role of backup point guard for the veteran’s minimum and then using the remaining cap space on a backup power forward?
Langlois: If Baron Davis has a future in the NBA – and, at 37 with a history of serious knee injuries behind him, that’s a long shot – he’ll almost surely have to come to camp with someone on a make-good basis. The Pistons aren’t going to risk the critical position of backup point guard for a team that just ended a six-year playoff drought on somebody with odds as long as Davis. His D-League comeback last season showed the instincts are still there but the athleticism was as expected – subpar. If Davis hadn’t suffered setbacks due to injury and had been a little more dedicated to conditioning, he’d have been a perennial All-Star instead of the two-time All-Star he was. If he’d have found an ideal situation with a well-run franchise, he might have become a slam-dunk Hall of Famer and all-time great. He had that much going for him. But his last All-Star appearance came 12 years ago. Stan Van Gundy told Steve Blake that while he was genuinely interested in having him back, he was looking for an upgrade at backup point guard with a player who could project as a long-term part of the core. If that’s the view on Blake, you can safely assume Davis is not a consideration for the Pistons – at least not as the No. 2.