We’ll put the caveat up front: It’s early.
But the outline of this story is emerging and pretty hard to ignore. The Pistons haul of Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey is shaping up about as impressively as any in the last 25 years when teams have gone into draft night with three first-round picks.
Dwane Casey has been in the NBA for all of those drafts – he joined Seattle’s staff under George Karl in 1994 – and knows how rare it is to hit on all three first-rounders, as the Pistons appear to have done.
Once you get past the top three or four picks, your odds of landing a long-term starter are no better than 50-50 even in the lottery. And it drops off from there. By the time you get to 16 and 19, where the Pistons found Stewart and Bey, a lot of those players find themselves out of the league by the time their rookie contracts are up.
“It’s very unusual,” Casey said of the work the Pistons did last fall. “Not only the talent, the type of young men they are. It’s very rare you get the character, the work ethic, the guys bringing their work pail each and every day. The future is very bright for these young men.”
The only draft groups of three first-rounders you’d take over Troy Weaver’s haul with certainty at this point share this trait: a star that overshadows the minimal impact of the other picks. There have been 25 instances over the quarter century dating to 1996 where a team has had three first-rounders – and most of them wound up with one or two of those picks being dealt to other teams.
But for the purposes of this exercise – as a way to underscore the challenge of hitting on anything more than 50 percent of first-round draft picks in general and less than that the farther you get from the top of the draft – let’s just look at the random three-pick first rounds over the last 25 years.
Take Houston’s 2001 draft as an example. The Rockets went into draft night with the 13th, 18th and 23rd picks and packaged all three to trade with New Jersey, which had the seventh pick used to select Eddie Griffin. It was a spectacularly bad trade for Houston, which got two seasons out of the troubled Griffin before substance abuse issues derailed his career.
New Jersey wound up getting two starters for teams that went to the NBA Finals in 2002 and ’03 before losing in an epic seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals series to the Goin’ to Work Pistons in 2004. Jason Collins, the 18th pick, was a journeyman center, though a sturdy presence for a Nets team led by Jason Kidd. But in 13th pick Richard Jefferson, the Nets got a 17-year veteran who started 417 games and averaged 17.4 points over his seven years with New Jersey.
So Jefferson alone made that a great draft for the Nets and his longevity makes it an apples-to-oranges comparison with the Hayes-Stewart-Bey haul while they’re still amid rookie seasons.
Three years after Atlanta had three picks in 2018 and five years after Philadelphia and Boston had three in 2016, they appear on a similar path as the New Jersey haul – one great player making it a slam-dunk draft. The Hawks swapped the third pick to Dallas for the fifth pick, so whether you want to include Luka Doncic or Trae Young with Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman, the same outcome applies. Huerter looks like a solid rotation player and Spellman had minimal impact in two seasons and is currently out of the NBA.
Philadelphia got the No. 1 pick in 2016 and used it on Ben Simmons, who’s provided 95 percent of the value the 76ers derived from their three firsts. The other two were spent on Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot at 24 and Furkan Korkmaz at 26.
Boston took Jaylen Brown third in 2016 and he’s an All-Star in his fifth season at 24. There was little yield from Guerschon Yabusele at 16 and Ante Zizic at 23, but Brown alone paid huge dividends for the Celtics. In that same draft, Denver hit big with Jamal Murray at seven and did OK at 15 with Juan Hernangomez and better at 19 with Malik Beasley. The Celtics got a likely future Hall of Famer with the 10th pick in 2001 in Joe Johnson – though he was long gone from Boston before showing signs of that result – but a combined thud from Kedrick Brown at 11 and Joseph Forte at 21.
It’s too soon to know whether Hayes, Stewart or Bey have All-Star games in their futures, but they’ve all shown enough that you wouldn’t necessarily rule that out for them, either. When Weaver said upon being hired last June that the traditional way of looking at rebuilding – as a three- or four-year project – no longer applies, it’s clear he had designs on aggressively making over the roster. And it started on draft night when he cobbled together the majority of his assets to add the 16th and 19th picks used on Stewart and Bey to the one he already had at seven, spent on Hayes.
“It was great. It was chaotic, a little bit,” Casey recalls of draft night on Nov. 18. “There was some wheeling and dealing to get those extra picks. But it all turned out well. That’s a credit to Troy and his staff and the job he did. A lot of moving parts that night and it turned out well.”
If you look at the list of 25 three-pick first rounds over 25 years, you’ve got to dig to find one where it looks like all three spots returned better than anticipated value.
Probably the best three-pick haul by that standard came from Boston’s 2004 class – the Celtics account for five of the 25 drafts with three first-rounders – when Danny Ainge picked high schooler Al Jefferson 15th, Delonte West 24th and Tony Allen 25th. Flip a coin for the worst: Chicago’s 2000 crop of Marcus Fizer at four, Chris Mihm at seven and Dalibor Bagaric at 24 or Phoenix’s 2016 result of Dragan Bender at four, Georgios Papagiannis at 13 and Skal Labissiere at 28. (Phoenix shipped 13 and 28 to Sacramento, which took Papagiannis and Labissiere, for the eighth pick used to take Marquese Chriss, equally shaky.)
The Hayes-Stewart-Bey class has already lapped half the field with what they’ve shown in their first season. And they’ve done it in the face of most unfavorable circumstances – no Summer League, no off-season development program with their new team, a compact training camp and no G League affiliate to provide fine-tuning opportunities.
If it’s still way too early to project what any of their ceilings might realistically be, it’s at least safe to say Stewart and Bey have established themselves as solid rotation pieces trending heavily toward bigger things. Hayes, robbed of 41 games and three months by a hip injury, has shown in the eight games played since returning three weeks ago why he was considered a top-10 pick. The Pistons believe all three will be starters and anchors for them going forward.
Bottom line, what the Hayes-Stewart-Bey first-round haul says most is that the buzz about Weaver having an exceptional eye for talent was spot on. And you never know how that will translate when a personnel evaluator slides into the No. 1 chair for the first time until you see it play out. The most renowned talent evaluator in NBA history remains Jerry West, who said long ago that if you’re right 51 percent of the time on personnel decisions you’ll beat the odds.
Based off early returns, Weaver went 3-for-3 on first-round picks.
Here’s the list of teams with three first-round picks in the same draft, though, again, many of these picks were traded to other teams. The number indicates the draft spot.
Atlanta 2018 – Luke Doncic 3, Kevin Huerter 19, Omari Spellman 30
Atlanta 1999 – Jason Terry 10, Cal Bowdler 17, Dion Glover 20, Jumaine Jones 27
Boston 2020 – Aaron Nesmith 14, Payton Pritchard 26, Desmond Bane 30
Boston 2019 – Romeo Langford 14, Matisse Thybulle 20, Grant Williams 22
Boston 2016 – Jaylen Brown 3, Guerschon Yabusele 16, Ante Zizic 23
Boston 2004 - Al Jefferson 15, Delonte West 24, Tony Allen 25
Boston 2001 – Joe Johnson 10, Kedrick Brown 11, Joseph Forte 21
Chicago 2000 – Marcus Fizer 4, Chris Mihm 7, Dalibor Bagaric 24
Denver 2016 – Jamal Murray 7, Juan Hernangomez 15, Malik Beasley 19
Houston 2012 – Jeremy Lamb 12, Royce White 16, Terence Jones 18
Houston 2001 – Richard Jefferson 13, Jason Collins 18, Brandon Armstrong 23
Memphis 2012 – Xavier Henry 12, Dominique Jones 25, Greivis Vasquez 28
Minnesota 2010 – Wesley Johnson 4, Luke Babbitt 16, Trevor Booker 23
Minnesota 2009 – Ricky Rubio 5, Jonny Flynn 6, Ty Lawson 18, Wayne Ellington 28
New York 1996 – John Wallace 1996, Walter McCarty 19, Dontae Jones 21
OKC 2010 – Eric Bledsoe 18, Craig Brackins 21, Quincy Pondexter 26
Orlando 2000 – Mike Miller 5, Keyon Dooling 10, Courtney Alexander 13
Orlando 1998 – Michael Doleac 12, Keon Clark 13, Matt Harpring 15
Philadelphia 2016 – Ben Simmons 1, Timony Luwawu-Cabarrot 24, Furkan Korkmaz 26
Philadelphia 2007 – Thaddeus Young 12, Daequan Cook 21, Petteri Koponen 30
Phoenix 2016 – Dragan Bender 4, Georgios Papagiannis 13, Skal Labissiere 28
Phoenix 2014 – T.J. Warren 14, Tyler Ennis 18, Bogdan Bogdanovic 27
Portland 2017 – Justin Jackson 15, Harry Giles 20, Caleb Swanigan 26
Utah 2004 – Kri Humphries 14, Kirk Snyder 16, Pavel Podkolzin 21
Utah 1999 – Quincy Lewis 19, Andrei Kirilenko 24, Scott Padgett 28