Pistons draft workouts an entrée to a world of possible career paths

Derek Willis went to training camp with the Pistons last season, played with their G League affiliate in Grand Rapids and was back for a free-agent minicamp last week.
Dennis Slagle/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – If it was ever the case that the only realistic options for a basketball player with no remaining college eligibility were the NBA or a 9-to-5 desk job, it was a long time ago.

Today the options are limited by little more than the imagination. The G League is one, but so are the scores of pro leagues that populate Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. There’s even a 3-on-3 league, the BIG3, that began play last summer.

So when someone like Dakota Mathias works out for the Pistons, as he did on Wednesday in advance of next week’s NBA draft, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Mathias, not considered a top 100 prospect by ESPN.com in a draft that goes 60 deep, will log about 10 workouts with various NBA teams by the time the draft hits and that gives him a chance to meet and make an impression on a few handfuls of folks from each front office.

If it doesn’t lead to an immediately lucrative job playing basketball, it could open a door next season – or it could lead to a job in coaching or scouting that eventually becomes a career. If Mathias doesn’t hear his name called next Thursday, the dream doesn’t die there.

“Everybody wants to get drafted, but sometimes if it’s not the right fit it might be better to go undrafted and you can see how you fit with a different team,” Mathias said. “Either way it goes, we’re going to find the right place and make the most out of it, regardless.”

The first step for Mathias should he go undrafted would be to earn an invitation to Summer League. Going through the draft workout process gives teams the chance to see how if what he did well in college – Matthias played four years at Purdue, hit better than 45 percent from the 3-point arc in his last two seasons and was known as a tough defender – translates to the NBA as well as what else he might have in his bag of tricks.

Derek Willis went undrafted out of Kentucky last season but went to Summer League with the Pistons and earned an invitation to training camp as a designated “affiliate player” – meaning the Pistons could assign him to their G League affiliate in Grand Rapids without exposing him to the league draft.

Willis attended a free-agent minicamp at the team’s practice facility last week and is weighing his options for Summer League and beyond. Among the decisions confronting him is to chase more lucrative dollars in international leagues or return to the G League and have a clearer path to the NBA.

“I know the (G League) base salary is going up this year, which is really good, and it appeals to a lot of people not wanting to go overseas,” he said. “You just weigh the pros and cons of it. Everyone’s situation is different. If it’s just me by myself, you go through training camp and you’re probably going to get $50,000 for that and then you’re going to get $35,000 coming from the G League. That’s a nice little salary to stay in the States.”

Alize Johnson, who was in the workout group Wednesday with Mathias, is considered right on the draft bubble. One of the nation’s top rebounders last season at Missouri State, he’s ranked No. 61 by ESPN.com.

“I do think my name is going to be called, but at the end of the day that’s out of my control,” he said. “I’m just going out in these workouts and trying to compete as much as possible so I can hear my name.”

If he does, great. If he doesn’t, there’s still a literal world of possibilities for Johnson to make his way in life playing – or working in – the game he’s loved since he was a kid growing up in Williamsport, Pa.

  • The headliner of the six-player draft workout group the Pistons hosted on Wednesday: SMU junior Shake Milton. But Milton, nursing an injury, did not participate in the workout.