Draft preview: A big man with big growth potential, Kabengele a wild card for Pistons pick at 15

Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele, newphew of Dikembe Mutombo, has seen his draft stock take off since an impressive week at the NBA draft combine last month
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS –Toronto is challenging Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the same reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.

Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.

The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.

The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.

Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.

The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.

Our draft preview series continues today with a profile of Florida State big man Mfiondu Kabengele.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Mfiondu Kabengele

ID CARD: 6-foot-10¼ center, Florida State, 21 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 23rd by ESPN.com, 25th by The Athletic, 30th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: Kabengele is something of a late bloomer, redshirting one season at Florida State and playing 15 minutes a game in 2017-18. He began to put himself on the map late in his redshirt freshman season, including a 14-point, 12-rebound game to lead an NCAA tournament win over Missouri. As a sophomore, Kabengele – though coming off the bench in all 37 games – led the Seminoles in scoring at 13.2 points and shot 50 percent overall and 37 percent from the 3-point arc. Though he shot only nine times a game and took just 65 3-point attempts for the season, Kabengele’s shooting form inspires belief that he’ll develop into a modern-day NBA five man – a shot-blocking defender with the ability to move his feet to stay in front of guards in pick and roll, a 3-point threat at the other end. His athletic testing and shooting performance during drills at the NBA draft combine further raised eyebrows; he hit 68 percent of his 3-point shots around the arc in stationary shooting drills and also scored well in shooting off of movement. Kabengele, who has remade his body over the last few seasons, also impressed with his agility and quickness testing. Kabengele will score further points in interviews. A native of Ontario, Kabengele is bright and engaging – the type of player who figures to embrace coaching and make significant strides early in his career.

SCOUTS WONDER: Kabengele’s bread and butter is his mid-range jump shot and he shows promise as a 3-point shooter. Closer to the rim, he needs something to hang his hat on. He’s athletic and strong and figures to become even more springy and stronger as his body continues maturing. But developing even one reliable low-post move takes time and Kabengele really will be starting from scratch in that regard. If a team can afford for Kabengele to essentially be a spot-up shooter and roll man early in his career – and the likelihood is that he’ll spend plenty of time in the G League as a rookie to work on a post game and other areas – then he can still be a back-end rotation player early while his game rounds itself. Kabengele will likely be turnover prone if he’s asked to do something other than face the basket until he gets more comfortable with the ball in his hands or with his back to the basket.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 21 – That was the total number of assists Kabengele amassed over 1,300 career minutes at Florida State, underscoring the notion that he simply hasn’t played enough basketball for instincts to become deeply established. Kabengele’s rare shooting touch for his size and athleticism will be his calling card early in his career, but there should be little expectation that he can be a facilitator out of the low or high post in the meantime.

MONEY QUOTE: “You can’t come into the league and expect to be a superstar. Everyone has a role. You’ve got to find your niche in the league. I feel at Florida State, they prepared me for that. I had my role; I maximized it as best I could. In good games and bad games, I was always myself. The coaching staff did a good job of keeping me consistent, keeping me being myself. When I get to the next level, I’m going to continue to do that.” – Mfiondu Kabengele at the NBA draft combine last month

PISTONS FIT: Kabengele is familiar with Dwane Casey. As an Ontario native and as the nephew of NBA great Dikembe Mutombo, he had access to the Toronto Raptors organization and has a little more insight into the way NBA organizations operate as a result. The Pistons will be in the market for a big man this off-season, likely a veteran capable of filling in should Andre Drummond incur foul trouble or miss games due to injury. That might be more than Kabengele warrants as a fairly raw rookie, but given his size and shot-blocking chops – he averaged 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes – there’s promise that Kabengele’s versatility would enable him to back up at both center and power forward until emerging as a player deserving of starter’s minutes.

BOTTOM LINE: Kabengele is starting to creep up mock draft boards, a reflection of the feedback leaking out of NBA front offices. He’s a unique prospect in that he’s not a teen – he’ll be 22 in August – and wasn’t a high-profile recruit, but because his development began a little later than most evaluators are coming around to the idea that Kabengele’s ceiling is high and still a long way off. On the potential vs. production continuum, Kabengele is a little outside of the mold but an intriguing prospect nevertheless. His size, athleticism, touch and character could have teams as early as the late lottery taking a look. The strength of the draft at 15, where the Pistons will pick, appears to be in wings with high variance between floor and ceiling. If the Pistons aren’t comfortable with the options left at 15 among them, Kabengele might become a more viable pick.

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