Fork in the Road

Toronto’s 2011, ’12 draft decisions dictated Pistons future

TORONTO – Wherever the trail takes the Pistons and Toronto Raptors from here, their fork in the road began with the 2011 NBA draft.

After the Cleveland Cavaliers took Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 pick, they were expected to take the player many felt was the big man with the most tantalizing potential in the 2011 draft class with the No. 4 pick. That was Jonas Valanciunas. Perhaps because of contract buyout entanglements and the understanding that the 7-foot Lithuanian teen wouldn’t come to the NBA for at least another year, the Cavs passed and instead took Texas freshman power forward Tristan Thompson.

Toronto was picking fifth and – expecting Valanciunas to be long gone – was believed leaning toward taking Brandon Knight.

Except Joe Dumars and Bryan Colangelo were on the phone, about to strike a deal that would have given the Pistons the No. 5 pick in exchange for their pick at No. 7, with a player from each side also involved in the deal. Once Valanciunas was left to Toronto, the potential deal was off. Valanciunas made his Raptors debut at The Palace on Wednesday night, while Brandon Knight is firmly entrenched as Detroit’s point guard of the present and the future.

But the 2011 draft also dictated the 2012 draft. Again, the Pistons and Raptors were bunched tightly in the lottery – the Raptors at No. 8 this time, the Pistons one spot behind them.

Had Toronto taken Knight instead of Valanciunas, the Raptors surely would have been on the hunt for a big man in a 2012 draft deep in centers and power forwards. And Toronto surely would have pounced on Andre Drummond, a player widely expected to be no worse than a top-five pick when the draft process started in April and May.

But with Valanciunas already in the pipeline, Toronto was fixated on adding shooters and wing athletes. Dion Waiters and Harrison Barnes were gone. So Toronto made a pick that most considered a reach, taking Washington sophomore shooting guard Terrence Ross at No. 8.

That left Drummond to the Pistons, every bit as stunningly as Valanciunas fell to the Raptors a year earlier.

Knight and Drummond vs. Valanciunas and Ross. How they develop will go a very long way toward determining the fates of these franchises for the next decade, perhaps.

In their first meeting at The Palace, Drummond made the greater impact, giving the Pistons 12 points, seven boards, two steals and two blocks in 22 minutes while Valanciunas had two points and two blocks with no rebounds in 12 minutes.

Valanciunas just turned 20 in May and has significant pro experience in his native Lithuania. Drummond is even younger and less experienced, turning 19 in August after one abbreviated college season at UConn. They have the potential to one day be top-five big men in the NBA and anchors for franchises that hope to contend for titles. The Pistons had not shot at Valanciunas and were only able to draft Drummond because Toronto didn’t – because Toronto already had its big man.

It’s a decision that will go a long way toward defining the futures of both franchises.