The Pistons wanted Troy Weaver two years ago and hired him on their second try less than three months ago. So they’ve long been aware of his prowess in spotting talent where others saw question marks. But they had to feel even better about their decision to snag Weaver from Oklahoma City’s front office – and, more importantly, about their future on his watch – after the events of Wednesday night.
In a critical Game 7 against a Houston team with two former MVPs on its roster – former MVPs both drafted by Weaver’s Oklahoma City front office, no less – the Thunder Weaver left after a dozen years to join the Pistons went deep into the fourth quarter with two rookies in their lineup, neither of them lottery picks.
Darius Bazley was the 23rd pick after never playing a game of college basketball. Luguentz Dort went undrafted after one season at Arizona State. There they were, midway through the fourth quarter of a one-possession Game 7 that wouldn’t be decided until the final buzzer, earning the trust of teammates and coaches for the minutes that drive all the work that goes into being a part of the NBA.
The ability to spot a useful NBA player from the hundreds of worthy candidates who crave employment among its ranks each year is the lifeblood of every franchise. Every tiny edge is pursued zealously. Bigger staffs, better technology, smarter analysis – all of it is studied and tweaked and second-guessed interminably. And yet nothing replaces the gut hunches of an old-fashioned scout with a bloodhound’s nose for players.
Bazley was considered a very fringe first-round prospect last spring after first shunning Syracuse to play in the G League, then opting out of that to intern with New Balance and, in effect, prepare for the 2019 NBA draft. The Pistons brought him in for a workout and liked him very much, even considering him a candidate with the 15th pick. But it still registered as a surprise to many that he went in the first round, eight spots after the Pistons were happy to see Sekou Doumbouya still available.
Bazley turned 20 just before the NBA entered the Orlando bubble and nobody would have guessed at the time that he’d be playing crunch-time minutes in a Game 7. But he’d shown enough as a rookie to already validate his draft status and, in fact, in a redraft it’s pretty clear that Bazley would not have been available for Weaver and the Thunder at 23 – perhaps not for the Pistons at 15.
Without a second-round pick last year, the Thunder targeted Dort when he surprisingly went undrafted after an impressive freshman season at Arizona State. Dort was a second team All-Pac 12 pick and first team All-Defense.
He was in the OKC starting lineup exclusively for that last part – the defense. And even if you knew nothing about Dort scoring 30 points in a deciding Game 7, a look at James Harden’s final stat line – 17 points on 4 of 15 shooting with four turnovers – would tell you what a stroke of brilliance it was for the Thunder front office to go hard after Dort’s signature on draft night.
His emergence isn’t merely a story of keen scouting but also of the importance of investing in player development – and of the value of having the G League franchise under the same roof as the parent NBA team.
When I asked Weaver earlier this summer – after the Pistons had announced the purchase of the Arizona G League franchise from the Phoenix Suns with the intention of beginning play on a new arena on Wayne State’s campus, a stone’s throw from the Pistons Performance Center – about the value of Oklahoma City’s G League team playing literally across the street from the Thunder’s home arena, Dort was his answer.
“He started off with the G League, we had a couple of injuries and he went over to the Thunder,” Weaver said. “He was able to get his feet under him and come back. Lu Dort this year was a tremendous beneficiary of our team being in close proximity.”
Billy Donovan used just eight players in Wednesday’s deciding game, the circle of trust shrinking as the minutes become more precious. Two of them were Oklahoma City rookies drafted on Weaver’s watch. Neither one was a lottery pick.
The Pistons already felt they got it right when they lured Troy Weaver from Oklahoma City. They felt that way two years ago when Weaver didn’t feel the timing was right. They have to feel even better about it after watching the most recent results of his talent hunt on display in the crucible of a Game 7.