Pistons workout brings in 3 potential picks at 15 – and here’s the case for drafting each

Keldon Johnson
Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson was one of 3 players to work out for the Pistons on Monday that could be considered for their pick at 15 in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Before Monday, only two of the 66 players the Pistons brought in for predraft visits and workouts could be considered potential lottery picks: Nassir Little and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. A generous interpretation would list another five as potential first-round picks: Daniel Gafford, Bruno Fernando, Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort and Talen Horton-Tucker.

That changed a little more than 72 hours before the draft when three players who could be in line to be drafted by the Pistons with the 15th pick came to town: Keldon Johnson, Brandon Clarke and Goga Bitadze.

It’s not inconceivable that any of them could be picked ahead of the Pistons, but a scenario that sees all three of them off the board before the 15th pick is tough to envision. All three have been invited to the NBA draft green room, a distinction usually limited to around 20 players.

They’re three very different players, too: Johnson a freshman wing, Clarke a 22-year-old college player, Bitadze an international 19-year-old big man.

You can make a case for all three. And so let’s do that.

  • Brandon Clarke
  • – He’s 22 – Clarke turns 23 in late September before he’ll play his first NBA game – and thus the most likely to be physically ready to contribute early. At 6-foot-8¼ but with superb shot-blocking instincts – Clarke averaged 3.2 blocks per game for highly ranked Gonzaga – Clarke might even be able to back up both Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.

    “I feel like I could come in after them. I’m a good backup guy off the bench for them,” Clarke said after his workout. Energy-wise, I’d be huge, just making plays for them and making plays for our guards, getting big defensive stops. There’s just a lot of buckets I can fill, really. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff I can do to help them out.”

    Clarke’s workout for the Pistons was his eighth and final one. He says he worked out for Phoenix, which has the No. 6 pick, and then pretty much every team between 10 and 17. Clarke understands that his immediate impact for whichever team drafts him is likely to come at one end of the floor.

    “Defensive versatility is probably the biggest thing, but offensively my game is getting better and better,” he said. “In the paint, I feel like I could score every time. My shot’s getting better. I can pass it well. But I’d probably say that my first thing will be on the defensive end, just being able to guard almost everybody on the floor.”

  • Goga Bitadze
  • – A 19-year old from Georgia – the European country, not Alabama’s neighbor – wouldn’t seem to be an obvious candidate for immediate help, but Bitadze finished the season playing in the Euroleague against the cream of European pro teams and holding his own.

    He held a pro day in the United States a few weeks ago, then returned to Belgrade, Serbia to play a few more playoff games and came back to the U.S. to work out for Boston, San Antonio and Atlanta. He’ll also work out for Charlotte before going to New York for Thursday’s draft. All of those teams but San Antonio pick ahead of the Pistons, but all but Charlotte, which picks 12th, all have first-round picks after 15, too.

    Bitadze isn’t a finished product but is seen as having intriguing offensive potential.

    “The NBA game has changed a lot,” he said. “A lot of stretch bigs and bigs need to play from outside. I think I can adjust my game like that. I think I can shoot the ball pretty well from three and also I can switch on defenders and be really aggressive on both ends and bring a lot of positive energy.”

    It’s unlikely the Pistons would draft Bitadze with the 15th pick and pencil him in as Drummond’s backup next season, but with Drummond potentially hitting free agency in 2020 – he has an option for 2020-21 – addressing the position now would give them a better idea of how much they could expect to get from Bitadze for 2020-21. He understands the opportunity for a young big man to go against the likes of Drummond and Griffin in practice every day.

    “I will do 100 percent to get better every day and bring as much as I can for the team,” Bitadze said. “They are great players, All-Stars. I can do some other stuff or I can bring a lot of positive energy because I’m a young guy.”

  • Keldon Johnson – Johnson is one of three Kentucky players who could be drafted between the 10th and 20th picks along with Tyler Herro, another freshman wing, and sophomore power forward P.J. Washington.

    Johnson measured 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9¼ wingspan at the NBA draft combine. The Pistons have a lot of wings in the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-6 range and might prefer one with a little more size, but they aren’t likely to let that dissuade them from taking Johnson if they see him as the best talent available.

    And of all the wings generally considered in that range – Nassir Little, Kevin Porter Jr., Romeo Langford, Herro – Johnson might be the surest thing. Others might be seen with greater potential, but there’s no glaring question with Johnson as it could be argued there are with the others.

    “We all are really different,” Johnson said. “I think we all bring something really different to the game. I bring energy, hard work and playing hard. I’m very, very versatile. I think I just bring everyday intensity.”

    Johnson’s workout with the Pistons was his eighth. Orlando, with the 16th pick, was the only team with a pick past 15 for which Johnson worked out. His appeal to the Pistons goes up if they see him as having the length and strength to match up with small forwards.

    “I think if they draft me, I think I could come in and I could do that,” Johnson said. “I think that I’m very versatile and I think I can guard twos and threes. I think I can guard multiple positions. If that’s what they need me to do and they bring me in, then I’ll do that.”


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