3 years after he was a No. 1 pick, Pistons give Patton a shot to revive injury-stunted career

Justin Patton
Justin Patton, still only 23, put up some intriguing numbers in the G League last season and hopes to revive his career with the Pistons
Zach Beeker (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

It’s extraordinarily rare for an NBA franchise to pick up a player of consequence – someone who makes more than a fleeting impression – without expending a meaningful resource. Not a draft pick, not a chunk of the salary cap, not a consequential player exchanged in return.

The Pistons defied those odds a year ago, picking up Christian Wood for nothing more than a waiver claim that meant they had to assume the terms of his non-guaranteed, minimum contract.

They hope to catch lightning in a matching bottle this summer by signing Justin Patton, who only three years ago was the 16th pick in the draft. Between injury – three foot surgeries, or one more surgery than he has feet – and becoming caught up in the reality of the NBA as collateral damage in a superstar’s trade, Patton has bounced through four franchises and played a total of 49 NBA minutes over nine games across his three seasons.

He’s worn the jerseys of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who drafted him in 2017; the Philadelphia 76ers, to whom Patton was traded in November 2018 along with Jimmy Butler; and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who signed Patton last August after Philadelphia, in a numbers crunch in April 2019, waived him ahead of the playoffs. Oklahoma City traded Patton to Dallas in late January in another business-motivated move, paring its luxury-tax bill the motivation for OKC, and the Mavs promptly waived him to create a roster spot.

The fact it was Oklahoma City that signed Patton last fall likely bodes well for his outlook with the Pistons, who last month named Troy Weaver – assistant GM in Oklahoma City for the past 12 years – their general manager.

The extraordinary circumstances of the disjointed NBA season gave the Pistons a chance to add Patton by using a piece of the mid-level exception that had gone unused for 2019-20 during the transaction window that closed at the end of June before the 22 teams that will resume the season in Orlando pick up again.

What are the Pistons getting in Patton?

If he’s healthy, a lithe big man with natural scoring instincts, a potentially good perimeter shooting threat and a rim protector. The “if he’s healthy” part probably explains 95 percent of why the Pistons were able to sign Patton without any serious commitment of assets.

He initially was injured before suiting up for his first Summer League game after the 2017 draft, breaking the fifth metatarsal of his left foot. That’s the tricky injury sometimes referred to as a Jones fracture, troublesome in that recovery is inhibited by poor blood supply. Khyri Thomas – Patton’s college teammate at Creighton – suffered a similar injury to his right foot last fall and was out from early November to late February.

Patton underwent a repeat surgery in April 2018 to “encourage healing,” then suffered the same injury to his right foot in September 2018.

The good news is he was healthy last season and showed more than flashes of validating his draft status with his G League play. On Jan. 14 while playing for Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate, Patton put up a most intriguing stat line: 45 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and six blocked shots.

In the Omaha World-Herald, his night was described this way: “He buried face-up 3-pointers and catch-and-shoot jumpers. He knocked down fadeaway Js. He drove from the top of the key to the rack. He laid the ball in his with his right hand and drained a short hook shot with his left. He finished off lobs and converted put-backs. He routinely delivered pinpoint passes to cutting guards for easy buckets.”

Patton, who turned 23 last month, told The Oklahoman after that game: “Just looking back, as basketball players and as anybody in life, you always want to reflect. And I did some reflecting. I was looking at how I played leading up to this point and I just felt like I needed to turn it on. And I will turn it on more going forward.”

In 30 G League games in 2019-20, Patton averaged 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, plus 2.9 assists and 3.2 blocks over 27 minutes a game. He shot .515 overall and .322 from the 3-point arc while taking 20 percent of his shots from behind the line.

Patton was a four-star recruit, considered a top-50 player, coming out of high school in Omaha, but spent one season redshirting at Creighton in 2015-16 as an 18-year-old. He averaged 12.9 points and 6.2 rebounds in 2016-17 before declaring for the 2017 draft.

Like a lot of big men who play comfortably away from the basket, Patton – whose father checks in at 7-foot-3 –experienced a growth spurt that took him from guard to center over the span of a summer. Between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, he sprouted from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-9. That helps explain his vision and passing skills, his footwork and the ease with which he shoots from the 3-point line. He exhibits a good feel for how to find the open space after setting screens and can put the ball on the floor better than most big men.

Where Patton fits in the big picture for the Pistons will depend in part on what else they accomplish over a summer with a reconfigured front office and more cap space than all but two other NBA teams. Christian Wood and John Henson are free agents, though the Pistons are favored to retain Wood, and Thon Maker will join them if the Pistons choose not to extend a qualifying offer. In other words, the door is wide open if Patton stays healthy and seizes opportunity.

Patton visited the Pistons the week before the draft, participating in a workout that also included Texas freshman center Jarrett Allen. Allen was drafted 22nd, six spots after Patton, by Brooklyn and has developed into a starting-caliber center. You could have flipped a coin on draft night as to which one would go first – or go on to have the better career.

A healthy Patton, perhaps, can still make that an open-ended debate. Maybe lightning will strike twice in the same place.

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