Wood’s comfort level with Pistons ‘a huge factor’ as he looks to the future

PHILADELPHIA – Christian Wood’s NBA journey launched amid the infancy of “The Process.” If the Philadelphia 76ers hadn’t already branded the term, it could just as easily apply to Wood’s own story.

The end game for the 76ers was to build a roster capable of contending for NBA titles and whether they’ve done that or not remains an open question five years after Wood made the 2015-16 roster as an undrafted free agent for a team headed to a 10-72 record.

The end game for Wood figures to come this summer when he lands a contract that confirms what his play this season has suggested: He belongs.

“I know it’s a big summer for me,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at Temple University ahead of Wednesday’s game with the 76ers. “I actually think I’m one of the best bigs in this free agency coming up with my ability to shoot and space the floor and be able to play the five and be able to guard and switch on the perimeter. I’ve just got to stay focused. I’ve got to keep with the same mindset, same attitude what I’m doing right now.”

Wood was claimed off of waivers by the Pistons last summer when he got caught in a numbers crunch in New Orleans. The bevy of players the Pelicans received from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade put a squeeze on their roster spots and Wood – because he had a non-guaranteed deal – was the easiest player to sacrifice, even though he averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 24 minutes over eight games to close the season after being picked up off of waivers from Milwaukee.

That contract Wood carried with him from New Orleans came with pluses and minuses. The Pistons got a free look at an intriguing prospect without giving up anything in return, but it also limited what they were – and will be – able to do to retain Wood.

They couldn’t extend him because only contracts of at least three years in length are eligible to be extended. And because Wood will be an unrestricted free agent on June 30, the Pistons won’t get a chance to match an offer sheet if another team offers Wood an enticing contract.

But the Pistons aren’t without advantages. They’ll hold his early Bird rights, which gives them the ability to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him. They’d be limited to offering him slightly more – 105 percent – of the 2019-20 average NBA salary via the early Bird exception. That will be a first-year salary of slightly more than $10 million.

The good news? That’s slightly more than the mid-level exception, which is estimated to be $9.7 million for 2020-21. A few months ago – maybe even a few weeks ago – it didn’t seem very likely that Wood would command any more than that.

Now? Well, in 12 games since Andre Drummond was traded and Wood’s role broadened, he’s averaging 22 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 54 percent overall and 37.3 percent from the 3-point line. Advanced metrics are equally bullish on Wood, whose versatility at both ends makes him the prototype for the modern NBA big man.

Wood’s ability to maintain his level of productivity while seeing his playing time increase – Wood averaged 14 minutes a game in November, 20 in January and 34 since the All-Star break – is what figures to drive his value.

“That’s a good sign,” Dwane Casey said. “A lot of guys, they’ve gone from being third or second at their position, a backup, to huge minutes and usually you see a tailoff in productivity. But Christian’s has hung in there. He’s in great shape. He’s not carrying a lot of extra weight. It’s been impressive that he’s been able to stay productive, stay efficient, and not have to shoot a volume of shots to be productive.”

That late-season run in New Orleans last season confirmed for Wood what he’d always believed – that given an opportunity, he’d run with it – but there was still doubt for him that a full-blown chance would ever really come.

“I was in the G League so much, up and down, it was kind of in the back of my head,” he said. “But I never wanted to quit. I always believed in myself. I always knew what I was capable of doing, what I could do on the court when given the opportunity. Even in limited minutes I was playing with Milwaukee and New Orleans, I think I was doing good so that was definitely a plus for me to keep it in my head to keep going.”

The fact the first prolonged opportunity came with the Pistons under Casey will be a factor in free agency, Wood maintains.

“It’s a huge factor,” Wood said, “especially with this team being one of the first to actually give me a legitimate chance and playing in games and believing in me and believing in what I do. Especially with Casey, with us establishing a relationship early and throughout right now. It plays a big factor.”