Willie Cauley-Stein might be the key to the Pistons draft. Not because he's their likeliest target. But maybe because he's their unlikeliest.
Of the consensus top 10 prospects – once you get past the presumed top four, out of reach to the Pistons – Cauley-Stein might be the toughest sell in the Pistons draft room. They need a backup center from somewhere this summer – both Greg Monroe and Joel Anthony are free agents, remember – and there are surely worse ways to go with your No. 1 pick than ensuring 15 minutes of exquisite rim protection a game whenever Andre Drummond sits.
But unless the Pistons view Cauley-Stein as the clear best prospect on the board at No. 8 – if he gets that far – then they'll probably be rooting hard for him to go ahead of them.
The top four prospects, by virtual unanimity, are Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay. Doesn't mean they'll go in that order, doesn't necessarily mean they'll be the first four picks. But the odds of one of them tripping past the seventh pick and available to the Pistons appears longer than the 2.8 percent shot the team had of grabbing the No. 1 pick in the May 19 lottery.
There is another consensus next four, though not quite as universally judged, in Justise Winslow, Mario Hezonja, Kristaps Porzingis and Cauley-Stein. For that reason alone, we've included him in our list of players profiled as possibilities with the No. 8 pick, coming Friday.
But if the Pistons are inclined to seek something other than a backup center with the No. 8 pick and they agree that those four represent the next tier, then somebody else picking Cauley-Stein ahead of them guarantees them both (a) a player they view as worthy of being picked that high and (b) a player who comes to a position of need.
Porzingis, a 7-footer, appears an ideal long-term partner for Drummond up front, billed as not only a 3-point threat but an athletic rim protector. Needs a little bulking up that should come with the natural maturity ahead for a 19-year-old, but a lot to like there. Winslow looks like a classic small forward and draws extremely high marks for character and competitiveness. Hezonja could project as easily to shooting guard as small forward, but in any case he'd bring an offensive flair some see as unmatched in this draft class.
All of that assumes the Pistons agree with the consensus, which ... yeah, probably not nearly that neat. If they're every bit as comfortable with Stanley Johnson or Myles Turner – or Devin Booker, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky or Bobby Portis – then Cauley-Stein's fate won't have much effect on their heart rate as the top seven picks go off the board.
The two likeliest landing spots for Cauley-Stein ahead of the Pistons would seem to be Orlando at No. 5 and Sacramento at No. 6.
The Magic really need a defensive presence in the middle. Porzingis might have that potential, but asking him to be the team's defensive anchor in 2015-16 would seem a reach, even if he's a better long-term fit offensively than Cauley-Stein with Nicolas Vucevic's work in the post. Cauley-Stein could transform the Magic defensively, given the athleticism they can stack along the perimeter (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon). But the quandary is that while he's better suited to protect the paint than Vucevic, he's also the only one of the two capable of guarding power forwards with any degree of mobility and range.
Sacramento is a wild card due to the organizational flow chart. General manager Pete D'Alessandro could be the St. John's athletic director – he's been tight with Chris Mullin since their days as St. John's undergrads and the Johnnies just happen to have an AD opening – by draft night. Vlade Divac might be calling the shots and it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Divac appreciating the offensive versatility a 7-foot European like Porzingis if Orlando doesn't grab him first. And nobody knows what influence George Karl might have or how he sees Porzingis or Cauley-Stein pairing with DeMarcus Cousins.
At any rate, reading the smoke signals from Stan Van Gundy – and he could be throwing them out to cast doubt or misperceptions – it appears the Pistons would shy away from taking someone with a major obstruction to a starting job in front of him, as anyone coming in behind Drummond would. In that case, if Cauley-Stein goes ahead of their pick, it just might push a player they covet down to No. 8.