Glimpses of Greatness

Pistons were ‘absolutely ecstatic’ Knight fell to them in draft
There was a reason the Pistons and Brandon Knight were never linked in the weeks between the May 17 lottery and the June 23 NBA draft: Knight was never supposed to be available with the No. 8 pick.

Only when Charlotte made the three-way trade with Milwaukee and Sacramento to land the No. 7 pick a few hours before the draft began did it dawn on the Pistons’ front office that Knight, indeed, could fall to them in the same way Greg Monroe unexpectedly was available with the No. 7 pick a year ago.

And for whatever it means for Knight’s future success, understand this: Joe Dumars and his staff were every bit as thrilled with this year’s turn of events as last year’s.

“We were ecstatic that he fell to us,” personnel director George David said. “We were absolutely ecstatic.”

Among the steps that made Knight’s plunge possible:

  • Utah passing on him with the No. 3 pick and selecting center Enes Kanter. The Jazz were leaning to Knight until very late in the process, the Pistons believe, but became sold on Kanter’s ability to become a franchise center – a sentiment the Pistons shared – with a late workout. But it’s clear the Jazz regarded Knight very highly, a notion reinforced for the Pistons since the draft.

  • Cleveland passing on Jonas Valanciunas with the No. 4 pick, leaving him available to Toronto at No. 5. If the Cavs had taken Valanciunas, the Pistons believe Knight likely would have been Toronto’s choice.

  • Charlotte jumping ahead of the Pistons – clearly believing that the Pistons would have taken Bismack Biyombo over Knight with the No. 7 pick.

    “It’s no secret our needs were up front,” David said. “As the draft unfolded, if the guys you had targeted and the guys you had liked who were bigs – if they’re gone – usually the next-best scenario is not a guy who was ranked in the top three, top four. No question, we were targeting bigs. But to be able to get a player who, in our opinion, was a top-four player, sometimes your Plan B is something you would have considered your Plan A but you never assumed it was possible.”

The Pistons planned for the unlikely contingency that Knight might be available at No. 8 by requesting to interview him at the Chicago draft combine – they assumed, at that point, that Knight was unlikely to OK a workout with a team picking that low, which proved correct. And the impression Knight made on them in Chicago only increased his appeal to the Pistons.

“It was very powerful,” David said. “His answers to questions were very direct. They weren’t prompted – they were very honest, very forthcoming. It was one of the better interviews I’ve ever done.”

“He came in dressed for a professional interview, coat and tie, just like Greg (Monroe) last year,” vice president Scott Perry said. “Whoever was asking the question, he looked you directly in the eye and answered your questions very well. He didn’t seem intimidated by the moment at all. Just to hear him talk about character, to hear him talk about all he’s put into the game to this point of his life and what he aspires to be going forward, about being unselfish, about his commitment to winning … he’s just a very intelligent kid.”

The thought of pairing Monroe, who put his maturity on display daily in a tumultuous rookie season, with the equally grounded and talented Knight appeals to the Pistons across many fronts – for the synergy their abilities suggest and the leadership their character promises.

“We definitely see those guys coming together,” Perry said. “They both are young men that have very similar values, on and off the court. They both have a strong competitive streak, they both are intelligent guys and intelligent basketball players, they’re both unselfish, they both want to win and they’re both driven to excel in this league. When you share that, people will end up connecting. That’s the vision you hope to see and we’re confident that can occur.”

“His commitment to education, that just shows his work ethic is very high,” Monroe said. “You see what he does on the basketball court. I’m definitely looking forward to playing with him. It’s someone who’s a good addition. With these guys and the guys already here, I think we’re on the right path.”

The Pistons felt confident they had a complete picture of Knight, in large measure because their focus on big men led them to scout an unusual number of Kentucky’s practices last season – the only opportunity NBA teams had to get to know Kanter, who was ineligible to play but allowed to practice with the Wildcats while he appealed the NCAA ruling of his ineligibility.

David saw nine Kentucky practices, becoming such a fixture in Lexington that after the draft one of John Calipari’s staffers told him, “It wasn’t until March that I realized you were an NBA executive. I thought you were one of Calipari’s friends.”

“There was never a time I saw Kanter when Brandon Knight was not out on the floor at least 40 minutes before practice and never a time when Knight wasn’t the last one off the floor,” David said. “And I knew it wasn’t for me – those guys didn’t even realize I was an NBA scout.

“By the time the season was over, we as a staff identified him as the guy with the greatest work ethic in the draft. That’s something we normally don’t tag somebody with because we don’t have the opportunity to see somebody as much as we did with him in practice situations.”

What type of player do the Pistons envision Knight becoming?

Perry raves about his speed and shooting.

“He has NBA-caliber speed, is going to be able to shoot the ball and he’s highly competitive,” he said. “Those jump out at you, along with the work ethic. Because he’s a young player, we see room for growth. And he’s highly intelligent.

“In transition, he’s going to be able to push the basketball. I think he’s going to be able to make shots, defend and the kid is going to compete. Does he have a lot to learn? Yeah, he’s 19. But you’re talking about a guy who everybody has been around says the exact same thing: He lives in the gymnasium and he wants to be a great player. So when you put those things together – the desire, the work ethic, the character – he’s going to give himself an opportunity to be successful.”

Work ethic, David said, is an especially important character trait Pistons staffers want to see in one-and-done college players.

“If you see glimpses of greatness, of becoming a big-time player, in a young kid,” he said, “the second thing you look for is a work ethic. That, more times than not, is going to determine how likely it is that the kid reaches his potential.

“We loved the things we know we got with him and we’re really optimistic on the things that are unfinished with him. You can’t have a better feel for a young player than if you can answer those two things. If you love the things you know and are optimistic on the things you’re going to need to love about him, that’s all you can ask for.”