Lottery Tuesday: Delving into Pistons history for player comps for the 5 elite lottery prospects
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: The most important NBA draft lottery draw for the Pistons since 1994 takes place tonight. Over the past several weeks, we’ve taken a look at different aspects of the lottery, today’s installment looking at player comparisons from Pistons history for each of the five players considered the top prospects in the 2021 NBA draft.)
There are only six possibilities for the Pistons tonight when the NBA draft lottery is held and that means, of course, Pistons fans accustomed to crushing lottery disappointment are convinced their fate will deliver them the worst of those six possibilities.
There’s an 80 percent chance the Pistons land a top-five pick and that seems especially relevant for the 2021 draft, which has had a remarkable unanimity of opinion from draft experts that it contains five players with absolute star potential.
“This class is extremely top heavy with Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs making up an elite top tier of talent every team should be legitimately excited about,” The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote in March, adding that he has all five rated as better prospects than Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick in 2020 and a strong contender for Rookie of the Year.
Cunningham is the overwhelming front-runner to be the No. 1 pick and Kuminga seems to have settled in as the consensus No. 5 prospect among the elite group with Mobley, Green and Suggs pretty much neck and neck at 2-3-4.
“… Cunningham is far from the only prize in this year’s potentially historic draft class,” ESPN.com’s Mike Schmitz wrote last week. “Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley and Jonathan Kuminga all represent great options for teams picking in the coveted No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 spots, all of which will be decided by the bounce of the ping-pong balls on June 22.”
So focus on the 80 percent for now and ignore the 20 percent chance of crushing disappointment awaiting tonight when ESPN goes live for the lottery draw at 8:30 p.m. If the Pistons land in the top five, chances are one of the five elite prospects will be wearing their uniform when training camp opens in late September.
To give Pistons fans with long memories – extremely long, in at least one instance – an idea of what type of player they might be getting, we’re comparing each of those five elite prospects with a prominent player from Pistons history:
Cade Cunningham: Grant Hill
This one is easy and obvious. A 6-foot-8 playmaker? Yeah, they don’t come around the bend every day … or every year … or ever for some franchises. If the Pistons hadn’t been blessed with a Grant Hill, I’m not sure where the comparison goes.
Hill arrived after spending four seasons – four! – at Duke, so he was a more polished player, perhaps, than Cunningham will be for his entry to the NBA. And Hill was a more explosive athlete than Cunningham, though Cunningham – a product of his times – arrives as a more accomplished 3-point shooter. But their similarities far outweigh their differences. The ability to use a player suited to playing and defending at small forward as your primary playmaker expands lineup possibilities by an order of magnitude.
Because Hill left the Pistons as a free agent and endured unimaginably bad injury fate after that – he played a total of 47 games over the first four seasons out of Detroit – it’s easy to forget how dynamic he was in a Pistons uniform. Hill averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists over six seasons in Detroit. He was a first- or second-team All-NBA player for the last five seasons here – the best five-year run for any Pistons player in history. He was on course to challenge Isiah Thomas for best player in franchise annals.
Yeah, Grant Hill would be a pretty fair outcome for Cade Cunningham.
Evan Mobley: Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace would not have seen his value diminish one iota had he come along 20 years later in the NBA of today where big men get played off the floor routinely. That’s why Mobley will defy current trends and go very high in this draft. In fact, he’s the one player that some believe has an outside shot to supplant Cunningham as the top overall pick depending on which team wins the lottery.
The Pistons might even be that team given general manager Troy Weaver’s profession of love for big men. Mobley is a 7-footer who handles the ball with the dexterity of a point guard. The only mild concern some have with Mobley is his frame, listed at 210 pounds, and the fairly modest 10.2 rebounds per 40 minutes he put up as a Southern Cal freshman.
Wallace’s ability to play inside or out, protect the rim and do pretty much anything at either end makes him the clear comp for Mobley.
Jalen Green: Jerry Stackhouse
A shooting guard with tremendous size – they both check in at 6-foot-6 – who jumps out of the gym and creates his own offense? Check, check, check.
Stackhouse was a scorer, first and foremost. The 29.8 points he averaged in 2000-01 is still No. 1 in Pistons history for a single season. Green has that type of ceiling as a scorer. He might even be a better athlete than Stackhouse and that’s saying something for those who remember a young Stackhouse who followed Michael Jordan to North Carolina and was one of the handful of players from his era considered a possible successor to Jordan’s legacy.
Green doesn’t quite have the same sturdy frame Stackhouse had but there aren’t any long-term concerns about his ability to withstand the NBA’s rigors because of it. Adding a player with Green’s rare combination of elite athleticism/elite scoring potential would be a positive outcome for the Pistons – or any other team with their hat in the lottery ring.
Jalen Suggs: Chauncey Billups
The Suggs-Billups comparison seemed apt even before Suggs launched a 40-footer at the buzzer to give Gonzaga a 93-90 win over UCLA in an NCAA semifinal in April. Mr. Big Shot, indeed.
Just as Billups remains an all-time icon among Colorado high school devotees, so Suggs will remain one for decades among Minnesota preps. He was a two-sport superstar with as many blueblood football programs chasing him to play quarterback as basketball programs were after him to do what he did for Gonzaga.
Suggs has the same DNA that made Billups a winner and leader, a trait that the Pistons have prioritized under Weaver and Dwane Casey. Given his size and athleticism, Suggs would bring the versatility that would make a pairing with Killian Hayes advantageous for the Pistons.
The other ex-Pistons great who bears similarities to Suggs: Hall of Famer Joe Dumars. If Isiah Thomas hadn’t been in place, Dumars might just as easily have spent the early part of his career at point guard, where he often backed up Thomas and played alongside Vinnie Johnson. Dumars also had the type of size and strength he used to great effect as a penetrator before transitioning to more of a 3-point shooter late in his career.
Jonathan Kuminga: Marvin Barnes
Marvin “Bad News” Barnes was the most infamous of the zany characters who populated the old ABA and the stories that surrounded him were the stuff of legend. He once refused to board a Louisville-to-St. Louis flight because he noted that the Central time landing was earlier than the Eastern time takeoff and declared he “wasn’t getting on no damn time machine,” renting a car to drive it instead. Barnes had enough phones installed at the mansion he purchased with his ABA signing bonus that he wouldn’t have to get up to answer no matter where he was when it rang.
He was ultimately a tragic figure, going to prison for violating probation for an assault case from his college days, but before that overtook him he was a breathtaking talent at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds – the same dimensions Kuminga brings to the table with a 7-foot-0 wingspan. In two ABA seasons, Barnes averaged 24.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.9 blocked shots. The Pistons took him in the ABA dispersal draft with the fourth pick in 1976 – one pick ahead of Moses Malone – and his impact with the Pistons was never as great, his personal demons overtaking him.
Kuminga has the same type of two-way sizzle and stat-stuffing potential as Barnes without the baggage, though he’s probably the least likely to step in and make an impact as a rookie. The upside is undeniably tantalizing, though.