History repeats: Pistons get Ivey, who took Isiah Thomas’ path to NBA

The Pistons didn’t win the lottery, but they might have won the draft.

And after making Jaden Ivey the fifth pick on Thursday night, it was hard not to flash back 41 years.

Franchise history changed on June 9, 1981, when a breathtaking guard from the Big Ten who’d spent two years in college did what he could to avoid being taken by the Dallas Mavericks with the No. 1 pick. Fast forward to 2022 and another breathtakingly athletic guard from the Big Ten who’d spent two years in college steered clear of the team picking ahead of the Pistons.

If Ivey’s time in Detroit turns out as well as the Isiah Thomas chapter, the Pistons moved that much closer to a third championship era when they took the Purdue star with the fifth pick after Sacramento chose Iowa’s Keegan Murray with the fourth pick.

Ivey, 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, avoided working out for Sacramento – he worked out in Detroit and texted Pistons general manager Troy Weaver of his desire to play here – and his public comments leading into Thursday’s draft didn’t do much to conceal his desire to avoid landing with the Kings, whose 16-year playoff drought is the NBA’s longest.

“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Ivey said about landing with the Pistons. “My grandpa played with the Detroit Lions. It was just an honor. I’m just blessed to have a great family here with me and I’m trying to enjoy this moment.”

Weaver pushed back on the popularly held notion that the 2022 draft featured four potential stars at the top – Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith, who went 1-2-3, plus Ivey – when the Pistons landed fifth in the May lottery, winding up with Ivey seemed a windfall for the Pistons.

“What he brings to the table, he’s got electric speed,” Weaver said. “He’ll create opportunities for us because of his speed. And he has the measurables to be a time-time defender.”

There were reports all week that Sacramento was being besieged by teams across the NBA interested in trading into the No. 4 pick for the chance to pick Ivey. Weaver said when the Kings passed on Ivey, things got hectic for the Pistons.

“There was a lot of activity,” he said. “But we settled in and we’re excited where we landed. But, absolutely, a lot of activity. I’ve been around this game a long time. Tonight has been as action-packed as I’ve been around.”

By winning the 2021 lottery and drafting Cade Cunningham, who met every expectation during a dazzling rookie season, Weaver was afforded wide latitude in putting a team around the versatile young playmaker. But it’s hard to imagine a better fit on paper next to Cunningham than Ivey.

“I fit well with Cade,” Ivey said. “Very unselfish player. I could play off the ball or with the ball. We could take turns. Whatever Coach needs. I think we’ll fit well together.”

Ivey, 20, could be especially devastating playing on the weak side and catching defenses on their heels while Cunningham makes plays for him out of pick and rolls. Ivey, likewise, should put enormous pressure on defenses with his emphatic ability to get into the paint. And Cunningham’s passing and Ivey’s speed make the Pistons an entirely different team in transition.

“Versatility, length, athleticism, competitive spirit,” Weaver said about the Cunningham-Ivey pairing. “Looking forward to watching those guys play together.”

Growing up in a family with so many ties to professional sports and coming to Detroit with such deep family roots might not have influenced Weaver to tab Ivey, but they inspire confidence in his chances for success.

“He sent me a text, he would be excited to be here,” Weaver said. “And he said his grandpa would be smiling. I’m sure they really embraced that moment. Just excited for him.”

Ivey became openly emotional when his destination of Detroit became known, sobbing and falling into the arms of his mother, one of many in the family with Detroit ties. Ivey’s grandfather, James Hunter, played seven seasons with the Lions as a defensive back in the 1970s and ’80s, dying tragically of a heart attack in 2010 at 56.

His father, Javin Hunter, starred as a wide receiver at Detroit Country Day and played four years at Notre Dame and in the NFL. While at Notre Dame, Hunter met Niele Ivey, a star on the Irish basketball team, leading them to the 2001 NCAA title and eventually succeeding Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw as head coach. Niele Ivey played for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock in 2005.

Jaden Ivey virtually grew up around Notre Dame women’s basketball, his mother a longtime assistant to McGraw before taking over for her in 2020.

“I know I wouldn’t be on this stage without her,” he said from New York, where he spent the night at Barclays Center, site of the draft.

Weaver expects whatever hurdles Ivey might face in his transition to the NBA will be overcome by his work ethic and his family experience with the rigor required to success at sports’ highest levels.

“Moments won’t be too big for him,” Weaver said. “He’s been around it. He’s felt it. That’s always a plus when you get a player who’s been around the family business. He’s a worker.”