Other than Blake Griffin, the Pistons frontcourt depth chart for 2020-21 is the land of opportunity.
Christian Wood is a free agent with all the uncertainty that entails. So is John Henson, acquired from Cleveland in a deal primarily motivated by the desire to remove Andre Drummond’s $29 million salary from the books.
And then we come to Thon Maker and Justin Patton, both of whom the Pistons have under team control but neither of whom has a guaranteed spot on the roster.
Dwane Casey says he’s not using team camp as a measuring stick for players without a guaranteed contract for next season, but it probably won’t be lost on those players that it surely can’t hurt their cause to show out at the camp that runs through Oct. 6 at the Pistons Performance Center.
Others who fall under that category include third-year veterans Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk and Khyri Thomas and two-way players Jordan Bone and Louis King. Brown and Mykhailiuk are virtually assured of having the third year of their rookie deals picked up, but Thomas is on the fence and two-way players, by the very nature of their contracts, are in the same situation.
“It’s an opportunity,” Casey said of the team camp, which the Pistons and seven other franchises not included in the NBA’s Orlando bubble relaunch of the 2019-20 season got the OK to conduct. “We’re telling our guys it’s an opportunity to get better as a team. Of course, we’re going to look to see the work guys like Sekou (Doumbouya), if they can transfer the individual work, the one-on-one work, the weight training, the running, to put it into a team concept and see how it translates.”
But while Casey says he won’t be viewing it through the prism of roster decisions, he acknowledges that it might be different for the front office now helmed by Troy Weaver, hired in June as general manager.
“Instead of judging those guys or seeing where they are, no, from my standpoint,” Casey said. “I’m going to be evaluating their growth and development because that’s where we are right now as an organization is trying to bring these guys along. That’s my main focus, the coaching staff’s main focus. But I’m sure Troy and the front office, first time he’ll be seeing guys in a team setting to see how they’re playing. So I’m sure they’ll be looking at it from that standpoint to see where guys are and how they feel about them.”
The dynamic at play between Maker and Patton, in particular, should be interesting. Maker quickly became a Casey favorite for his selflessness and work ethic after arriving from Milwaukee at the 2019 trade deadline. Patton was signed by Oklahoma City, where Weaver served as assistant general manager, after enduring three foot injuries over his first two NBA seasons upon being drafted 16th in 2017.
“It’s going to be a good match between Justin and Thon,” Casey said, anticipating Phase 2 of team camp which starts today and allows for scrimmaging after Phase 1 was limited to individual workouts. “That’s a good matchup we’re looking at at the center position. Thon’s energy, how he’s playing hard … Thon is shooting the ball extremely well right now. One of Justin’s gifts and strengths is his passing. He’s really passed the ball well. He’s long, lanky and he’s finally healthy.”
Patton spent most of last season playing for Oklahoma City’s G League affiliate and showed flashes of the form that got him drafted just outside the lottery after his only season of college basketball at Creighton. To Casey’s point about Patton’s passing ability, in a Jan. 14 game for the Oklahoma City Blue – in which he also put up 45 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots – Patton recorded nine assists.
If the shooting prowess Casey has seen from Maker translates from his individual workouts to scrimmages, he’ll put himself in stronger position to keep his hold on a roster spot. Going into his fifth NBA season, Maker will be a restricted free agent if the Pistons extend a qualifying offer, though that’s unlikely given that it would obligate them to pay Maker $4.8 million. If they opt to not extend the qualifying offer, Maker would become an unrestricted free agent but could still return to the Pistons.
He’s a career 33 percent 3-point shooter who takes a healthy 40 percent of his shots from the arc, so an improvement of, say, 4 or 5 percentage points to take him from below average to above average would be significant.
“We’re excited to see those two,” Casey said. “We know who Thon is, but Thon is really shooting the ball extremely well right now, so I’m excited to see how that translates into five on five.”