He’s played his way into Pistons present, now Christian Wood takes aim at their future

SAN ANTONIO – There’s another deadline looming for Christian Wood, but it’s fair to guess he’s not feeling much anxiety this time around.

Because the Pistons made a waiver claim to obtain Wood last summer, they inherited the contract he took with him from New Orleans – one that contained a few dates to allow the team to wiggle out of the deal before it becomes fully guaranteed. Jan. 10 is the last of those dates.

While there was real suspense during training camp whether Wood or Hall of Fame-bound Joe Johnson would win the last Pistons roster spot – the decision was made easier when Johnson was felled by Achilles tendon pain – there’s not much doubt about how it plays out any longer.

“I look at him as one of our core young guys to develop,” Dwane Casey said.

Wood will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, the Pistons holding early Bird rights that will help them retain him. After bouncing through four NBA organizations in four years, the Pistons offer Wood the chance to sink roots.

Casey has said he advocated for Wood at cut-down time and acknowledges his enormous natural gifts – the rare combination of size, agility, shooting touch and ballhandling that makes Wood the prototypical modern NBA big man. In response to fan sentiment for Wood to take on a broader role, Casey has also pointed out the mental lapses and defensive gaffes that helped explain why it’s taken Wood five tries to find a semblance of NBA permanence.

But Casey is quick to praise Wood for gains on those fronts, as well.

“Even in the games we got beat, his growth has been there,” Casey said. “That’s what this year is about – training and growth, longer periods of sustained focus. He’s showing that on both ends of the floor, not getting caught up as much in the little things that take him out of plays offensively and defensively.”

Wood began the season No. 5 in a five-man frontcourt cohort, but he’s unseated Thon Maker to move up a rung. He’s now settled in as Andre Drummond’s backup at center, though he’s equally comfortable – perhaps more comfortable – at power forward. In Mexico City earlier this month, when Pistons players took part in an NBA Cares clinic and were asked to introduce themselves and give their position, Wood identified as a small forward.

“I wouldn’t say any natural position. I think I’m comfortable on the perimeter,” Wood said. “I’m comfortable at the four, comfortable at the five. If he wants to put me at the three, I think I’d be comfortable with that, too. I can stretch the floor, but I’m comfortable at any position. As long as I’m on the floor, I’m going to produce.”

That’s a barometer of Wood’s confidence. He’s not going to fail in the NBA for lack of faith in his ability to compete.

The numbers so far back him up. He’s seventh on the Pistons in scoring (9.3 per game) and second in rebounding (4.9) despite being 11th in minutes (15.3). He leads in shooting percentage at .623 and hits nearly 40 percent (39.5) of his 3-point attempts. In scoring per-36 minutes, Wood is second (21.6) only to Derrick Rose and in rebounding second (11.3) only to Andre Drummond. He leads the Pistons in PER (24.2) and offensive rating (125) and is second to Drummond in defensive rating (109), leading them in net rating.

“If I were to give it a grade, I’d probably say A-minus,” Wood said as a critical assessment of his season to date. “I think I’ve done and shown things that other people can’t do on the floor, especially bigs. I think I run the floor really well, shoot the ball well and help teammates off the bench. So far, I think I’ve been doing great.”

Casey would counter – and has – that there are things the numbers don’t reflect: getting lost in transition or missing a rotation or misplaying a pick and roll. Those were the areas that gave Maker the early edge over Wood. Casey’s face twists in displeasure when he’s asked if Wood has earned his trust these days, but the minutes he’s granting him now reveals the truth.

Points and rebounds seem to come effortlessly for Wood and perhaps for such players it becomes more challenging to convince them of the value of the finer points that lead to points and rebounds. Wood concedes that point, almost.

“In a way, yeah, but I think it’s my natural abilities that help me out a lot, especially on the offensive side. On the defensive side, I think I’ve picked it up. But Coach is right. It was the little things at the beginning of the season, but I’ve picked it up and there’s nothing to worry about now. He has a little more trust in me – he hates that word, ‘trust’ – but he has a little more faith in me now.”

“Believe me, we harp and harp and harp,” Casey said. “I’m sure he’s tired of hearing me get on him about the little things, but it’s just going to make him a better player. Because the talent is there. The easy stuff is there. But the nuances of the game, the focus, the concentration areas – you’ve got to have attention to detail. Those are areas he’s got to continue to be consistent with.”

Wood’s incredible length – his standing reach is 9-foot-3½ and his wingspan is 7-foot-3¼ – and the ability to get off of the floor quickly make him a natural shot-blocker and rim protector. His easy gait and lateral agility allow him to effectively defend on the perimeter and in pick and rolls. Those are the tools required of a big man equipped to stay on the floor in all scenarios. Now it’s on Wood to weave those skills together into a defensive menace. And if he continues to show the ability to knock down perimeter shots, well, there aren’t really any more impediments to Wood becoming an impact player.

“I would say my defense has been 10 times better since the beginning of the season,” he said. “My shooting’s been very good since the start. Those two things, I was harping on in the summer and the beginning of the season. I think it’s panned out for me.”

When Casey talks about his young core, it starts with Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown. Sekou Doumbouya, just turned 19, is using his rookie season to position himself to help in 2020-21. Jordan Bone and Louis King, on two-way deals, are using the G League to cement their status as club members.

No one has done more since the season began than Christian Wood to gain entry.

“I’m only 24. I haven’t reached my potential yet, but it’s a process,” he said. “I’ve been going through this process and I think Casey is right by my side to help me out. It’s going to go well. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but I could be here for a long run.”