Langford? Johnson? Alexander-Walker? No clear-cut favorite for Pistons at 15th pick
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AUBURN HILLS – Two years ago the Pistons had the 12th pick. By the morning of the draft, there was enough clarity about what would happen ahead of them that the Pistons could have had Luke Kennard’s jersey made up for that night’s announcement.
There is no such clarity this time around with a pick just three spots lower.
Ed Stefanski said earlier this week that he thinks he knows eight players who’ll be off the board at 15. An educated guess of those eight: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Hunter, Cam Reddish, Coby White, Darius Garland, Jarrett Culver and De’Andre Hunter. I’d throw in two more likely to be gone: Jaxson Hayes and Sekou Doumbouya.
After that, it’s beyond murky. There isn’t anything close to a clear choice for the next most likely player to be taken. Proverbial gun to the head, I’d say Nassir Little and Rui Hachimura are the next two players unlikely to fall to 15, but it’s no better than 50-50 that happens.
And if you’d ask me to place a bet on who the Pistons wind up drafting with the first of three picks tonight – news of a draft-eve trade that adds a player plus a late first-round pick won’t become official until after the completion of the first round – I’d play a three-player parlay: Romeo Langford, Keldon Johnson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
They’d all fit a need – Langford and Johnson for a wing who perhaps would offer a little more than the rest of their young wings provide, Alexander-Walker for his upside of being a part of the solution at point guard going forward.
There’s some question whether Alexander-Walker has the stuff to really be a point guard, but at minimum he’d be a secondary ballhandler with 3-point potential, defensively versatility, high basketball IQ and five-star character.
Stefanski didn’t do much hand tipping in his Monday comments, but he mentioned a premium on “playmakers and shooters” a few times and kept coming back to the front office’s prioritizing of character and hard-nosed play.
Those three don’t have any disqualifiers, at least if you look at Langford’s track record before shooting 27 percent from the 3-point arc as an Indiana freshman with a thumb injury on his shooting hand that required postseason surgery. He’s the fourth-leading scorer in Indiana high school history, doing at a large school, and scored 29 points a game three years ago as a sophomore to lead his team to the state championship. Getting the ball in the basket shouldn’t be an issue for Langford after he figures out the NBA.
If there’s ever a draft where wild cards could come into play, it’s this one.
Monday’s workout included 6-foot-11 Georgian Goga Bitadze, and though that’s not a name familiar to any casual NBA fans he’s too well regarded to be considered a real wild card. Some of the more credible mock drafts, in fact, have him going ahead of the 15th pick. Finding a skilled big man with a resume that includes production in EuroLeague play in the middle of the first round is certainly justifiable. Holding his own in EuroLeague as a teen makes it reasonable to expect Bitadze capable of competing for backup minutes next season and giving the Pistons flexibility a year from now should Andre Drummond decide to opt out.
Darius Bazley, who skipped college basketball for a year as a New Balance intern, certainly would turn heads as the 15th pick. He’s created something of a stir through his draft workouts, by several accounts.
Should the Pistons pick up a late first-round pick – wink, wink – he’d be on the list of players to watch if he’s still available. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, a prolific scorer and a player who can get his own shot, is another one to monitor. Tennessee’s Grant Williams, a two-time SEC Player of the Year though still just 20, would be hard to pass up late in the first round.
With their second-round pick at 45, Stefanski doesn’t expect to find the quality that last year’s draft produced. The Pistons got Bruce Brown with the 42nd pick and they’re high on Svi Mykhailiuk, picked 47th by the Lakers and acquired via the Reggie Bullock trade in January.
Pistons director of scouting Gregg Polinsky came from the Brooklyn front office that found Rodions Kurucs out of Lithuania with the 40th pick last season. He wound up starting 46 games for a playoff team in a season that began with him as a 20-year-old. File that away for the moment.
The Pistons could face something of a roster crunch next season. They have 10 players under contract (Blake Griffin, Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kennard, Brown, Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer, Thon Maker, Khyri Thomas, Mykhailiuk) and make it 11 if they pick up the option on Glenn Robinson III’s deal, though that seems less likely after the events of Wednesday night. They need to add two point guards plus a backup to Drummond in addition to the wing with more size, which would be achieved with the making official of Wednesday’s reported trade.
Stefanski made clear they won’t bank on the 15th pick to fill a rotation spot, so they’re likely to sign at least two and perhaps three veteran free agents. Even if you don’t include Robinson, 10 plus three plus two first-round pick gets you to 15 roster spots.
That’s a long way of saying that in a draft Stefanski doesn’t regard as particularly deep, the Pistons might not have the space to commit a roster spot to the 45th pick. They could take a college player with the intent, and perhaps the understanding, that he’d be signed to a two-way contract and spend most of the season in the G League.
Or they could hope to draft a young European prospect. One name in that draft range appears to be 18-year-old Lithuanian Deividas Sirvydis. His team played in EuroCup, a cut below EuroLeague but still quality competition against older pros. He’d likely be a candidate to spend another year in Europe and not clogging the roster. There is another handful or so of young international players who could be drafted from the middle of the second round down.
Given their needs at point guard, it’s also possible the Pistons grab one at 45 – or, if not, scramble when the draft ends to prioritize their pick of the best undrafted point guard. There are maybe a dozen prospects who could be drafted from 45 to 60 or go undrafted and the Pistons probably would like to come away with one who has a chance to develop into a rotation-quality player. Denver’s Monte Morris was a late second-round pick two years ago and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet went undrafted three years ago.
By getting some work done before the draft, the Pistons not only better addressed their roster needs but also gave themselves an extra swing at finding players who can grow into prominent roles in the near future. They’ve given themselves every chance to be a better team going into training camp than they were after wrapping up a playoff season.