Lottery Tuesday: Sometimes even when you can’t go wrong, history says you can go wrong

Blake Griffin
Ex-Piston Blake Griffin was one of four straight No. 1 overall picks who would go on to become All-NBA players
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: The most important NBA draft lottery draw for the Pistons since 1994 will take place one week from today, June 22. Over the past several weeks, we’ve taken a look at different aspects of the lottery, today’s installment looking at what the expectations should be for the Pistons along the spectrum of their possibilities with any of the top six picks.)

If it seems obvious that getting the No. 1 pick should be the most desirable outcome for the Pistons when the NBA holds its draft lottery next week, then it follows that getting the No. 2 pick should be the second-most desirable result.

But a look at what the second pick has yielded over the past decade-plus says otherwise.

That’s one reason – not the only reason, but a pretty compelling one – why it would be premature to pop champagne corks if the Pistons capitalize on the 52 percent chance they have of landing a top-four pick in a draft where consensus opinion holds that star power will be available. It’s also probably why Pistons general manager Troy Weaver isn’t formulating his roster-building strategy with the results of the 2021 draft at its core.

“Definitely star potential in the top five. Franchise-changing? I don’t see any Shaqs or LeBrons,” Weaver said last month. “I’m not looking for somebody to walk in from the draft and change the franchise.”

Go back to the 2009 draft – that’s 12 drafts to get a decent 10-year sample size since it’s too soon to judge the last two drafts with any certainty – and the odds of landing a star are pretty good at No. 1. And No. 3 has given teams a solid shot at landing an All-NBA caliber player. But No. 2 is littered with busts and players whose careers came up far short of expectations.

The Pistons can land no lower than sixth in the July 29 draft. Their odds for each pick are as follows: No. 1, 14 percent; No. 2, 13.4 percent; No. 3, 12.7 percent; No. 4, 11.9 percent; No. 5, 27.8 percent; No. 6, 20.1 percent.

Here’s a look at what type of player that would have netted the Pistons over the past decade-plus:

No. 1 – The 2009-12 drafts yielded All-NBA players at No. 1 four straight years in Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. Irving and Davis have been parts of NBA championship teams, though both were alongside LeBron James to win them. In the eight drafts since then, only Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns have ever been named All-NBA – the three five-man teams honoring the league’s top 15 players at the end of each season – though Zion Williamson seems likely to crack the list if he remains healthy and Deandre Ayton and Anthony Edwards might someday ascend to that status.

The bust rate is relatively low at No. 1. Anthony Bennett, the top pick in a 2013 draft in which there was nothing close to a consensus overall top pick, was an emphatic bust, though. He played only 151 games for four franchises before exiting the NBA in 2017. Andrew Wiggins hasn’t performed at No. 1 overall pick levels but did enough to win a maximum contract from Minnesota. Markelle Fultz’s career has been star-crossed, but Orlando saw enough from him before a knee injury cut short his 2020-21 season after eight games to give him a three-year, $50 million extension last December.

No. 2 – If the Pistons land at No. 2, they’d have their pick of the field other than presumptive top pick Cade Cunningham – and in a draft where most who devote their careers to assessing amateur talent say you can’t go wrong in the top five, the Pistons would seem to be in prime position with that outcome.

But chances are most of the teams that landed second over the last 12 years thought the same way and – whoa! – take a look at the list of flops who were picked second. Over a four-year span that began in 2009, Hasheem Thabeet, Evan Turner, Derrick Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were second picks. Turner wasn’t exactly a flop – he played 10 years, started 295 games and avarged 9.7 points for his career – but he was nowhere near a franchise-altering player, either. The other three were … underwhelming.

Victor Oladipo, the second pick in 2013, took a while to gain traction in the NBA and peaked by earning third-team All-NBA with Indiana in 2018, but a serious leg injury – a torn patellar tendon, for which Oladipo recently underwent a second surgery – has stalled his career. Jabari Parker (2014) has become a journeyman around a series of knee injuries. Lonzo Ball and D’Angelo Russell are starters if flawed and divisive prospects.

Ja Morant seems the former No. 2 pick with the greatest upside among active players with Brandon Ingram on his heels. So it’s not a total wasteland. But it’s a cautionary tale that suggests even in a draft as highly regarded as this one, yes, you probably can go wrong in the top five.

No. 3 – The recent track record of third picks is significantly better than that of second picks. James Harden – the third pick in 2009 after Griffin and Thabeet went 1-2, chosen by Weaver’s front office in Oklahoma City – was the 2018 MVP and could be on the verge of leading Brooklyn to the NBA title if his hamstring injury allows. Luka Doncic, taken third in 2018, looks like a future MVP. Joel Embiid was runner-up for the 2021 MVP, Jayson Tatum has already been an All-NBA performer and two others – Bradley Beal (2012) and Jaylen Brown (2016) – are at least in the running for future All-NBA berths.

So that’s six players out of 12 who have performed up to or beyond expectations by any reasonable standard. Two others, current Piston Jahlil Okafor and Enes Kanter, were big men who came around a decade too late amid an NBA that no longer suits their styles.

LaMelo Ball, the third pick in 2020, is off to a promising start but it’s too early to know if he’ll be All-NBA material or on the cusp of it. R.J. Barrett, Otto Porter and Derrick Favors have been or still are solid players but well short of stars.

No. 4 – It starts to get a lot more spotty outside of the top three. Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth pick in 2018, probably has the best chance at stardom. Aaron Gordon, the fourth pick in 2014, is probably the best player of the fourth picks since 2009 still active. Kristaps Porzingis seemed on track for stardom until injuries stalled his progress.

The Pistons helped rehabilitate Josh Jackson’s career in 2020-21 two years after Phoenix cut bait two seasons after making him its pick at No. 4 in 2017. The Suns whiffed on Dragan Bender at No. 4 in 2016. Tyreke Evans started strong but went sideways after winning 2010 Rookie of the Year. Dion Waiters had his moments but ultimately fell far short of his potential. Cody Zeller has settled in as a rotation piece as has Tristan Thompson. Wesley Johnson played nine unremarkable years after being the fourth pick in 2010. Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter, the fourth pick in 2019, played well around a knee injury in his second season and is out for the postseason with surgery on tap.

No. 5 – Trae Young, the fifth pick in 2018, is the standout of active fifth picks since 2009, though Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox has emerged as a likely future All-Star after averaging 25.2 points as a 23-year-old for the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins burned bright for a few years mid-career but has been severely slowed by leg injuries over the past three years. Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth pick in 2011, remains an effective player though he, too, has seen his utility limited by the NBA’s drift toward perimeter players, 3-point shooting and spacing since he arrived.

There were a lot of flat-out misses or ultimate disappointments sprinkled in at No. 5, though. Thomas Robinson, Alex Len, Dante Exum, Mario Hezonja and Kris Dunn were the fifth picks in consecutive seasons beginning in 2012. Ricky Rubio has been a solid pro since being picked fifth in 2009, but Minnesota picked point guards on consecutive picks at fifth and sixth and then saw Golden State grab Steph Curry seventh.

No. 6 – The no-doubt star of No. 6 picks since 2009 is Damian Lillard, taken by Portland in the 2012 draft. Marcus Smart has grown into a tremendously valuable player for Boston since being the sixth pick in 2014, though he’s never been an All-Star let alone an All-NBA player.

Jonathan Isaac, the fifth pick in 2017, had a breakout late in the 2018-19 season but has since suffered two significant knee injuries. Buddy Hield, the sixth pick in 2016, has tremendous shooting range but is an otherwise limited player. Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein are Kentucky products with similar profiles – non-entities offensively and limited in today’s NBA even if useful rim protectors. Jonny Flynn – the other point guard Minnesota chose ahead of Curry – Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely were busts.

It’s a track record that underscores the folly of pinning all hope of organizational rebirth on accumulating multiple high lottery picks, but on the flip side for Pistons fans, there’s this: Weaver found tremendous value at 16 and 19 with Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey in his first draft with the Pistons. It suggests that he’ll be proven right about taking Killian Hayes at seven once Hayes, who missed three months of his rookie season with a hip injury, benefits from a normal off-season and training camp – and that Weaver will make the most of wherever the lottery determines the Pistons will pick in this year’s draft.

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