In Joe D’s Footsteps

In the 1985 draft, Jack McCloskey was looking for a long-term partner for Isiah Thomas in his backcourt. Not too many miles west of the Silverdome seemed an obvious solution. Sam Vincent was a local hero, Michigan’s first Mr. Basketball winner in 1981 and a decorated All-American at Michigan State.

When Dallas took Indiana center Uwe Blab with the 17th pick, the way was clear for McCloskey to draft Vincent. At least one prominent person expected him to do exactly that.

But when Trader Jack told Pistons owner Bill Davidson that the pick was going to be a guard from tiny McNeese State instead, and spelled out his name, Mr. D roared, “Who the hell is Joe Dumars?”

Across the street from the Silverdome, at the lounge where they were holding a draft viewing party for fans, the boos cascaded down the M-59 corridor. Joe Dumars was not a popular pick, not with Sam Vincent still on the board.

Somehow, it worked out OK for the Pistons, who would win the franchise’s first two NBA titles within the next five years – Dumars was NBA Finals MVP when they won the first, in 1989 – and a third when Dumars, four years after being named president of basketball operations and two years before his induction in the Naismith Hall of Fame, put together another championship team.

So there was at least one person in the room Friday, when the Pistons introduced their three 2013 draft choices, who knew exactly the expectations facing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, taken by the Pistons one spot ahead of Michigan’s Trey Burke, the 2013 national Player of the Year after leading the Wolverines to the NCAA title game.

And that person thinks the player he selected with the No. 8 pick to bring his rangy 6-foot-6 athleticism and deep shooting range to the same position Dumars manned for 14 years will bear the weight of expectations just fine.

“You want to make sure you’re selecting someone who’s up for the task, who can handle whatever comes with those expectations,” he said at Friday’s introductory press conference at which Caldwell-Pope, Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva were given their Pistons jerseys, numbers 5, 9 and 34 if you’re keeping score. “We really feel that way about Kentavious, the way he approaches the game, night in and night out, that he’ll be up for the task.”

Of course, 1985 was before the Internet and talk radio and their immediacy in disseminating the fan base’s emotions. Dumars understands it might work on his rookie in ways it could never have on him. But they share roots that probably give Dumars better insight into Caldwell-Pope than most. Caldwell-Pope, like Dumars, comes from the rural South. He grew up in Greenville, Ga., population 846, and took the Patriots to the 2011 final four in Class A – the smallest of Georgia’s six enrollment classifications.

Georgia isn’t McNeese State, but Georgia basketball is nearly as far removed from the public consciousness, ranking a distant fourth behind Georgia football, Georgia football recruiting and Georgia spring football in the minds of the natives. Yet on a team without another NBA prospect, Caldwell-Pope played well enough to win SEC Player of the Year acclaim, overcoming the inherent bias that favors players on league champions or, at least, title contenders.

“To be honest with you, Kentavious is probably the same way I was,” Dumars said. “I had no idea, anything about Sam, nothing at all. That may change for him by the end of the day, but he came in this morning and he’s oblivious to that. He doesn’t know.”

The Pistons are among the NBA’s most buttoned-up front offices, with credible information rarely leaking from their end. But they went the extra mile to keep their keen interest in Caldwell-Pope under wraps, even being coy with his camp during the predraft dance. They knew Minnesota, picking one spot behind them, was intensely focused on coming away with one of the three top-ranked shooting guards: Victor Oladipo, Ben McLemore or Caldwell-Pope. When all three were gone after the Pistons picked, the Timberwolves drafted Burke – and then traded him to Utah for two later first-rounders.

“It’s always in your best interests to keep things close to your vest,” Dumars said. “It’s always in your best interests not to divulge too much. We knew the guys we liked in this draft. We knew the priority we had them in. We knew we liked him, one of a few guys we really liked, and if we had an opportunity to select him, we were going to.”

Caldwell-Pope came to town earlier in the week, not to work out – his agent told the Pistons he was dealing with a hamstring strain – but to share a meal with Dumars and assistant George David and meet with them at the team’s practice facility.

“We had a great meeting when I came here,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We talked about a lot. We got to know each other. Sitting down in the office with Joe, he told me he really liked me. Being selected at eight … just relief.”

Caldwell-Pope and Mitchell both were in New York for the draft, while Siva watched from Louisville. All three arrived in Detroit on Friday morning. The whirlwind continues for the rookies next week, as they’ll fly to Orlando on Wednesday and get in several practices before opening Summer League play on July 7. We’ll have tons of coverage leading up to Summer League and beyond and much more on Caldwell-Pope, Mitchell and Siva in the days ahead.