As NBA draft nears, Pistons faced with call to play it safe or swing for the fences

Oregon’s Bol Bol is one of the true boom-or-bust prospects in a draft that could encourage the Pistons to swing for the fences with the 15th pick.
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – There’s a spot in every draft where the risk-reward ratio entices a front office to become more embracing of the likelihood of picking someone who might not leave much of a mark on the NBA – but might turn out to be a transformative player, as well.

There’s a stigma that gets attached to picking a player in the top 10 – surely in the top five – who flames out. When you get a little deeper, it’s easier to explain to a fan base – or an owner – why your first-round pick is a lesser player than the fifth-year pro who went undrafted and signed for the minimum.

The most glaring example of that type of pick came in the 2013 draft. Bucks general manager John Hammond – who’d been the longtime assistant GM for the Pistons until Milwaukee pried him away in 2008 – used the 15th pick to take Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s the kind of pick that props up an executive’s Hall of Fame candidacy. But is it one that Hammond would have made if, say, the Bucks were picking third or fourth – or eighth or ninth?

Probably not.

In other words, there’s a point in every draft where it becomes palatable to grab a boom-or-bust type knowing full well that the “bust” half of the equation might be more like a 75 percent reality.

If there ever seemed a draft and a time in a franchise’s arc to roll the dice, this might be it for the Pistons. They don’t absolutely need their 15th pick to come in and win minutes. It would be great if that happened, but the Pistons have 11 players under contract for next season. They’ve got the tools, via cap exceptions, to fill their most pressing needs with veteran free agents.

Blake Griffin just turned 30 and is coming off of his best season in four years, the transformation he’s made to the perimeter all but guaranteeing he’ll remain an elite player for the life of the three remaining years on his contract and beyond. Andre Drummond gives the Pistons two All-Star caliber players. They’ll have cap space a year from now – and that’s when it would be ideal for their 2019 No. 1 pick to be ready to shoulder some minutes.

That’s a long way of saying they can take a player at 15 this year with the idea that 2019-20 will be spent getting him ready to contribute in 2020-21. Who might that be?

Not much has changed over the past month since the NBA draft combine when it looked like there were 10 players who’d either certainly or most likely be gone when the Pistons go on the clock at 15. Those 10: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Jarret Culver, Darius Garland, De’Andre Hunter, Coby White, Sekou Doumbouya and Jaxson Hayes.

Where does that leave the Pistons? Choosing from a broad pool of uncertainty. In a more typical draft, a team picking 15th and already being able to eliminate 10 names as being unavailable would probably be able to narrow its draft pool down to a handful of players.

In this draft, for the Pistons it’s at least two handfuls – and probably more like three.

I’ve identified 15 players who might – might – be in play for the Pistons and split them into three groups. There’s a group of players that represents safe picks – players who more than likely will have long NBA careers and not have much trouble getting a next contract when they hit free agency. There’s another group of a half-dozen that somewhat fits that category, though the gap between their floor and their ceiling is a little wider; there might be a star or two in there, there might be a few who never crack a rotation for good. And then there’s a group that represents the classic “boom or bust” profile.

SAFETY FIRST: P.J. Washington, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Keldon Johnson, Cameron Johnson, Rui Hachimura

Gonzaga’s Hachimura is probably the least likely to be available at 15 of this bunch, then Washington. Either would be likely ready as rookies to assume backup minutes to Griffin, an appealing prospect. Cameron Johnson, perhaps the best shooter in the draft, might also fit in that category, though the question of whether he’s physical enough to play inside or athletic enough to fit on the perimeter clouds his status a little more.

Keldon Johnson might not be ready to play as a one-and-done type, but he’s an all-around player whose best quality early in his career will be 3-point shooting. Alexander-Walker’s upside would come if he proves he’s a point guard, but in any case he looks like he’ll play a long time as a useful perimeter puzzle piece.

DOWN THE MIDDLE: Romeo Langford, Nassir Little, Mfiondu Kabengele, Tyler Herro, Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, Brandon Clarke

Langford and Little came into the college season viewed as top-five prospects, then saw their lights dim through uneven freshman seasons. Langford had a thumb injury that complicates evaluation of his perimeter shot, while Little had to come off the bench for a North Carolina team with NCAA title aspirations. Scouts won’t forget the parts of their resume that preceded them to college, but balancing them with more recent evidence becomes the challenge.

Williams, Edwards and Clarke are at the opposite end of the spectrum within this group – wildly productive college players with questions about size or athleticism affecting judgment of how they’ll translate to the NBA.

Kabengele is a unique case. He’s more mysterious than most 21-year-olds – he actually spent a redshirt freshman season at Florida State and came off the bench the past two seasons, though he led the team in scoring this season – with a rare combination of size and shooting touch. Herro could challenge Cameron Johnson as the best shooter in the class. Another Kentucky freshman, Herro might not have quite the well-rounded profile of classmate Keldon Johnson but has a chance to have the best single tool – shot-making – of anyone in this group.

SWING FOR THE FENCES: Kevin Porter Jr., Bol Bol, Darius Bazley

There’s very little likelihood that there’s another Antetokounmpo in this draft, but is there a future All-Star on the board after 14 players have heard their names called?

Maybe it’s Bol. The son of Manute Bol, he’s a 7-footer – 7-foot-2½, actually, with an absurd 7-foot-7 wingspan – who shot 52 percent from the 3-point arc as a college freshman. Of course, that was on just 25 shots in the nine games he played before a foot injury that might scare away teams not already scared off by the fact Bol weighed in at a mere 208 pounds at last month’s combine.

Porter is one of the very few players in this draft who might have the potential to score 20 points a game in the NBA. But there’s a reason he’s got at least a 50-50 chance to be available at 15, too, or why he played just 22 minutes a game for an underwhelming Southern Cal team.

Bazley spent the past year interning for shoemaker New Balance, passing on a freshman season at Syracuse and then abruptly deciding against Plan B – a year in the G League – on fears he’d be overmatched by grown men and see his draft stock take a major hit. But he’s an intriguing 6-foot-9 multiskilled athlete who projects ideally to today’s NBA if his unknowns catch up to his tangible assets.

The Pistons have nine days to sort it all out. So far, only Alexander-Walker and Little have come to Auburn Hills for draft workouts, but at least another three or four workout groups are expected to come to town. Those final 48 hours of putting their draft board together figure to be especially lively this time around.

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