Pistons mission: Find a franchise pillar in a 2020 draft that features no sure thing

Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, but draft experts agree there’s nobody who rates as a slam-dunk atop the 2020 draft
Layne Murdoch Jr. (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The NBA draft is, at once, both the surest way to accelerate a rebuilding process and very much a crap shoot.

In another example of two things in apparent conflict with each other being simultaneously true, the Pistons have embarked on a rebuilding both at the best possible juncture – amid the longest off-season in NBA history and with a new general manager afforded the luxury of time – and the worst possible moment – in a draft widely deemed as being devoid of sure-fire future All-Stars.

But the truth about the 2020 NBA draft, now scheduled for Oct. 16, is that it might not be that much different than the 2019 draft but for the absence of stars Zion Williamson and Ja Morant at the top of it.

The Pistons go into the August lottery – according to an ESPN.com report, the NBA last week notified teams it was moving from August 25 to August 20 – in the No. 5 position, meaning they have a 10.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick and a 42.1 percent shot at landing inside the top four.

Under the new lottery format put in place for the 2019 draft, the top four picks – as opposed to the top three, the formula since 1987 under various blueprints – are determined by the lottery. That means, however unlikely, that the Pistons could be jumped by as many as four teams with worse lottery odds and pick as low as ninth.

So with that in mind, here’s a look at the past 10 NBA drafts through nine picks with an eye toward determining the realistic odds of the Pistons coming out of this draft with a franchise cornerstone.

2019 – Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett, De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, Jarrett Culver, Coby White, Jaxson Hayes, Rui Hachimura. Two stars and a whole lost of uncertainty after that. White had promising flashes and finished strong before the March 11 suspension of the season. Barrett, Hunter and Garland all played at least 1,700 minutes on lottery teams with mixed results. Franchise cornerstones: Williamson and Morant.

2018 – Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, Mohammed Bamba, Wendell Carter, Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox. Doncic and Young are already All-Stars with Doncic in the running for All-NBA. Jackson is on their heels. Three potential great players makes 2018 a strong class. Ayton might never justify getting picked over them, but he’s already a force. Bagley’s been consistently hurt. Knox has been the biggest disappointment. Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, picked 11th, could be the next to crack the star threshold. Franchise cornerstones: Doncic, Jackson, Young; Ayton and Gilgeous-Alexander with a chance to move into that tier.

2017 – Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith. Philadelphia made one of the great gaffes of the century in trading up from No. 3 to No. 1, sacrificing a valuable future first-rounder to Boston in the process, to take Fultz, leaving Tatum for the Celtics at No. 3. Tatum is the unquestioned star of this crop. Jackson spent most of the season in the G League before finishing strong for Memphis. Fultz salvaged his career in Orlando but the jury remains out on whether he’ll develop into a competent starter, never mind a star. Isaac is the more promising Magic player. Ball found himself with New Orleans. Markkanen plateaued after an impressive rookie season. Fox is miles ahead of Ntilikina and Smith as point guards, the latter two in danger of “bust” territory. Two players picked at the back end of the lottery, Donovan Mitchell (13) and Bam Adebayo (14), have made All-Star appearances. The Pistons took Luke Kennard, amid a breakout season when knee tendinitis prematurely ended his season in late December, 12th. Franchise cornerstones: Tatum and Mitchell; Adebayo, Fox and Isaac ones to watch with Markkanen in similar territory.

2016 – Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Marquesse Chriss, Jakob Poeltl. Simmons, Murray and Ingram are – or shortly will be – on max contracts. Brown emerged as a top-50 level player in his fourth season. Bender was an enormous bust. Dunn is serviceable but hardly a dynamic point guard. Hield is an elite shooter. Chriss might have salvaged his career when given playing time with the depleted Golden State Warriors. Poeltl will have a long career as a rotation piece. The best players picked outside the top nine: Domantas Sabonis (11) and Caris LeVert (20). Franchise cornerstones: Simmons and Murray; Brown nearing that territory.

2015 – Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, Frank Kaminsky. Towns is comfortably among the NBA’s top five centers. He’s now teammates with Russell, a divisive player on a max contract. Okafor is the shining example of a player who came to the NBA a decade too late – the relatively immobile big man. Porzingis returned successfully from an ACL tear and is in an optimal situation alongside Doncic in Dallas. Hezonja, Mudiay, Johnson and Kaminsky – the first three, especially – have all underperformed expectations by wide margins. Two players picked late in the lottery, Myles Turner (11) and Devin Booker (13), should have gone in the top five. Franchise cornerstones: Towns and Booker; Russell is paid that way; Turner and Sabonis, Indiana teammates, are on the cusp with speculation the Pacers might need to move one of them.

2014 – Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh. Wiggins got paid and he’s now Golden State teammates of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, so we’ll see next season whether he can be a leading figure on a winning team. Skeptics abound. Parker, after more knee injuries, is a niche player at this point. Embiid is a superstar but they’re still crossing fingers in Philadelphia that he’ll stay healthy. Gordon has emerged as a solid starter but doesn’t consistently affect winning. Exum, beset by injuries, has never gotten it rolling. Smart would be a guy every coach wants on his roster and he’s rounded out his offensive game now to complement his tenacity. Randle puts up numbers but is a tough guy to complement. Stauskas and Vonleh missed badly, but there weren’t a bunch of obvious better picks. Zach LaVine, who went 13th, is the best of the next wave. Franchise cornerstones: Embiid; you could make the case for Smart or Gordon.

2013 – Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Trey Burke. The draft most like 2020 in that there was nothing close to a consensus No. 1 pick and great uncertainty as to draft order. This far in front of the 2013 draft, McLemore might have been the favorite to go first. An hour before the ’13 draft, Bennett’s agent was frantically phoning front offices to see how far his client might drop. Oladipo had emerged as a star in his third NBA stop, Indiana, when he suffered a devastating patellar tendon injury in early 2019. Whether he can regain that level is anyone’s guess. Porter is a fine two-way player but not a star. Zeller, Len and Noel are all rotation pieces. McLemore had one foot out of the NBA before reviving his career as a James Harden wing man. Caldwell-Pope is a solid starter. Burke has had to fight to stay in the league. The unquestioned star of the draft class: reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, picked 15th. C.J. McCollum went 10th, Steven Adams 12th. Franchise cornerstones: Antetokounmpo, Oladipo (with an asterisk on his health) and McCollum.

2012 – Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Thomas Robinson, Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Ross, Andre Drummond. The New Orleans Pelicans won the lottery twice in the decade and they came in the two years there was the most unanimity about the identity of the top pick – Davis and Williamson. Kidd-Gilchrist’s competitiveness couldn’t mask his skills deficiencies; he’s barely hanging on in the league. Beal is one of the league’s top shooters and scorers but the best player outside of Davis was taken sixth, Lillard. The concerns about Waiters’ makeup have been validated. Robinson never made a mark as an undersized power forward with little game away from the paint. Drummond was the best Pistons pick of the past decade at No. 9. Franchise cornerstones: Davis, Beal, Lillard; Drummond should have been a top-five pick.

2011 – Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker. Irving was the first of three overall No. 1 picks taken by Cleveland in a four-year span and the best of the bunch. Williams rode a hot 2011 NCAA tournament to the No. 2 pick but never came close to living up to that status. Kanter, Thompson and Valanciunas are all competent NBA big men. Vesely was a huge bust but has had a fine career in his native Europe. Biyombo was a mystery man who, all things considered, has done OK for himself. It wasn’t a majority, but some thought Knight would have a better career than Irving, a rival on the AAU circuit. Injuries stalled Knight’s career. Walker’s highs don’t match Irving’s and he never had the luxury of playing sidekick to LeBron James, but his career puts him no worse than No. 2 among the top nine. The best player in the draft, though, was picked 15th: Kawhi Leonard. Klay Thompson, who went 11th, is no worse than a top-four player from the class of ’11. Franchise cornerstones: Leonard, Irving, Thompson, Walker; big dropoff to whoever is fifth.

2010 – John Wall, Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson, DeMarcus Cousins, Ekpe Udoh, Greg Monroe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gordon Hayward. Wall was a worthy No. 1 pick, though whether he can ever rebound from Achilles tendon surgery when his game is speed- and quickness-dependent is dubious. Paul George went 10th in this draft and has emerged as the best player. Turner never had a big impact and Johnson never became more than a (mostly minor) role player. Favors is a solid pro, though not the star Cousins has been around bouts of serious injury. Udoh was a miss. Monroe was a victim of the NBA evolution as a big man who lacked the lateral mobility to stay on the floor against spaced-out offenses. Hayward’s All-Star ceiling has been lowered due to a devastating leg injury in his first game with the Celtics in 2017, but he’s still a very good player. Franchise cornerstones: Wall and George; Cousins and Hayward were close to achieving that status.

It would be great to look at that summary and determine a pattern that would unlock a fail-safe draft blueprint. What we see, instead, is that even as teams have poured tenfold the amount of resources – including technology and man-hours – into perfecting the draft than prior generations did, teams still miss on top-five picks and stars still emerge outside of the top 10.

If there’s any conclusion to draw, it’s probably that in a year without a consensus future star available, the Pistons shouldn’t sweat the results of the August 20 lottery all that much. It’s a subjective measurement, to be sure, but I’ve got 24 players who are or were franchise cornerstones taken over the past 10 drafts. There’s not a clearly identifiable one in the 2020 draft, but history suggests one or two – or three or four – of them will emerge as that.

Indeed, that highly derided 2013 draft – the one this draft most recalls – produced three franchise cornerstones in Antetokounmpo, Oladipo and McCollum. It’s on new general manager Troy Weaver and his inner circle to make sure they go into the Oct. 16 draft as best prepared as possible to find such a player.

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