Futures market: Wood’s breakout season a bright spot for 2019-20 Pistons

Christian Wood
Christian Wood cycled through 4 NBA franchises after going undrafted in 2015 before finding success with the Pistons.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: During the suspension of the NBA’s season due to COVID-19, Pistons.com is looking at nine young players who either filled larger roles than anticipated or got their first NBA exposure this year, all of it as a result of the wave of injuries that struck the Pistons and led to an organizational decision to rebuild. So far we’ve examined Bruce Brown, Jordan Bone, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk and Louis King. Next up: Christian Wood.)

By Keith Langlois

Fourteen teams – every franchise that didn’t make the 2019 playoff field – had a chance to pick up Christian Wood last summer ahead of the Pistons.

When New Orleans faced a roster numbers crunch sparked by the bounty received for trading Anthony Davis to the Lakers and needed to pare someone, Wood – by virtue of the non-guaranteed deal he’d signed with Milwaukee in September 2018 – became the most easily expendable despite his eye-opening cameo to finish the 2018-19 season.

Wood was no lock to make the Pistons roster, either, as their 2019 training camp opened Oct. 1 on Michigan State’s campus. It really came down to a choice between Wood and Joe Johnson, a Hall of Famer in waiting. Achilles pain that dogged Johnson as cut-down day arrived might ultimately have been the tipping point.

Here's a look at Wood – where he’s been, how he’s evolved and what the future might hold for him as the Pistons embark on a rebuilding phase.

PAST – Wood entered UNLV in the fall of 2013 as a four-star recruit, ranked 45th in the class by RSCI, a composite of the leading recruiting services. He took a big leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons, going from a bench player averaging 4.5 points in 13 minutes a game to a starter averaging 15.7 in 33 minutes.

Wood entered the 2015 draft fully expecting to hear his name called, perhaps even to shake Adam Silver’s hand before the first round’s conclusion.

“It was definitely a stunner to me, for sure,” Wood said of going undrafted three weeks ago, on the eve of the suspension of the NBA season when Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. “I thought I was projected to be like mid-first round a little bit and then at least the second round.”

Wood’s measurements at the 2015 draft combine spoke both to why he was intriguing and why there were questions about his NBA viability. He posted a standing reach of 9-foot-3½ and a wingspan of 7-foot-3¼, yet weighed only 216 pounds on a 6-foot-10½ frame. Worse, Wood’s body fat percentage of 14.7 was second-highest among tested prospects – meaning not only was he skinny, he had comparatively little muscle mass. Wood’s body, in other words, had a long way to go to withstand NBA rigor.

Wood wound up signing a non-guaranteed deal with Philadelphia and spent much of his rookie season with the 76ers, though he was waived twice and signed two 10-day contracts while appearing in 17 games. He spent the 2016-17 season with Charlotte, though appeared in only 13 games. His entire 2017-18 season was spent in the G League with Delaware, the 76ers affiliate, averaging 23.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in 45 games.

That was enough for Milwaukee to offer Wood a two-year deal, though he appeared in only 13 games in 2018-19, buried on the depth chart behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson. When the Bucks suffered a critical run of backcourt injuries late in the season and needed to clear a roster spot to add Tim Frazier, Wood – and his easily fungible non-guaranteed deal – was the obvious victim.

New Orleans claimed Wood and he averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds over the final eight games. Wood was waived on July 15 and awarded to the Pistons two days later when the 14 lottery teams ahead of them in the pecking order passed.

PRESENT – After outlasting Johnson to claim the 15th roster spot, Wood started the season fifth in a frontcourt rotation that only had room for four. In fact, even with Blake Griffin opening the season sidelined by residual knee and hamstring soreness coming off of April knee surgery, Wood’s playing time was spotty in the early going.

When Griffin made his debut on Nov. 11, Wood didn’t play as the Pistons lost to Minnesota. Dwane Casey was never coy in discussing Wood’s fight to establish a role more in line with his per-minute production, citing mental lapses at the defensive end.

But that per-minute production began to overwhelm Wood’s gaffes. Month by month, Wood’s numbers ticked up. Wood’s monthly scoring average from November through the March 11 suspension of the season went from 7.3 points per game to 11.2 to 11.6 to 19.3 to 26.6.

Wood established career scoring highs three times in his last four games, scoring 29 against Oklahoma City on March 4, 30 against Utah on March 7 and 32 against Philadelphia on March 11. In the nine games since the All-Star break, Wood averaged 24.0 points and 9.6 rebounds amid the heaviest workload of his career, more than 34 minutes a game, while shooting 57.1 percent overall and 38.8 percent from the 3-point line on four triple attempts per game.

FUTURE – The major question looming over Wood’s future with the Pistons is his pending unrestricted free agency. Because Wood came to the Pistons on the two-year deal he signed with Milwaukee, they were unable to negotiate a contract extension; only deals of three or more season are extension-eligible.

The Pistons will hold Wood’s early Bird rights and that will allow them to sign him via the early Bird exception. It stipulates that the team holding early Bird rights can offer 105 percent of the average player salary for the 2019-20 season, which means they could offer a multiyear deal that includes a first-year salary of slightly more than $10 million. (The average salary for the 2019-20 season has been estimated at $9.56 million.)

That’s more than the projected mid-level exception of around $9.7 million, a projection that could be lowered depending on how NBA basketball-related income, or BRI, is affected by the suspension of the season. Besides the Pistons, only seven other NBA teams are projected to have cap space above the mid-level exception this summer.

That’s one advantage they’ll have. Another: familiarity. After failing to sink roots with four previous NBA franchises, Wood said recently that his comfort level with Casey and the Pistons will play a role in his decision-making process.

“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.”

Beyond Wood’s impressive per-minute productivity, the underlying advanced stats like him equally well. He led the Pistons in PER and the NBA’s own similar composite tool, Player Impact Estimate. His true shooting percentage of 65.9 is outstanding. Among players who played more than 15 games, he led the Pistons in offensive rating and net rating.

Wood played most of his minutes at center behind Andre Drummond until the trade that shipped Drummond to Cleveland, then spent more time at power forward next to John Henson following the trade. He’s comfortable at either spot and his shooting range and lateral mobility give him the latitude to match up against a variety of frontcourt players.

And that gives the Pistons flexibility in building out their frontcourt around Wood should they retain him. If Griffin returns at full capacity next season, it stands to reason that Wood will log more minutes at center. And given the drift of the NBA, that’s probably where he’ll hold the most value.

“I think the one thing he has to do in this summer to come is to get stronger – not necessarily get bigger, but he’s got to get stronger,” Casey said. “His core strength, his lower-body strength, to not get bumped off his mark at the five position. Now at the other end, he has an advantage. He can pull ’em out of the paint and face ’em up and take the shot, a lot like what (Karl-Anthony) Towns does at Minnesota.”

Wherever he plays – power forward or center – Wood, 24, established himself as a no-doubt NBA player four years after going undrafted. If the Pistons can work out the details of a new contract that favors their salary cap structure, Wood will get the chance to further establish himself as a vital piece of their evolving roster.

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