Pistons draft preview: Walker oozes qualities of restoration’s aim

(Editor’s note: With the Pistons holding the No. 5 pick in the June 22 draft, Pistons.com today continues its series of previews of potential targets with the built-in assumption that the consensus top-three prospects – Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller – will be off the board. Today: Houston freshman Jarace Walker.)

There are at least a handful of legitimate candidates in play for the Pistons with the No. 5 pick if the top of the draft goes as anticipated in three weeks and there are myriad considerations to be assessed in that time by Troy Weaver and his inner circle.

But from a thousand yards, it sure seems that no one oozes the qualities Weaver seeks in his restoration of the Pistons more than Jarace Walker. At the heart of what any competent personnel evaluator does is turn over as many stones as possible to find out everything about what makes a player tick. The Pistons are bound to hear glowing things about the traits they value most when they’re doing due diligence on Walker, who also happens to be a rare physical specimen.


ID CARD: 6-foot-8 forward, University of Houston, 19 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked ninth by The Athletic, seventh by ESPN.com, eighth by The Ringer, fifth by Bleacher Report

SCOUTS LOVE: Walker played for Kelvin Sampson at Houston, who has a long history as an NBA assistant and college head coach and whose teams at Oklahoma and Indiana before returning to college at Houston were always known for toughness and defense foremost. Walker fit right in as a freshman who came from prep powerhouse IMG Academy as a five-star prospect. That’s the type of profile that usually lands players at Kentucky, Duke or a similar blueblood program. So it is reflective of Walker’s mindset and self-image that he chose to play at Houston. From a physical perspective, Walker – who weighed nearly 250 pounds at the combine – will be the rare rookie who’s prepared to hold his own or better in the paint and he’s athletic enough to present as a switchable defender. Walker showed some advanced passing skills as a freshman in a limited role on a team with established playmakers where he was fourth in minutes per game and third in shot attempts. He wasn’t a volume 3-point shooter (29 percent of attempts) but connected at a respectable rate (.347). He averaged 1.0 steal and 1.3 blocks per game or 1.4 and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

SCOUTS WONDER: Is Walker destined to be a very good to elite defender and just a complementary offensive player or is there a little more playmaking sizzle to be mined there? On a typically loaded IMG team in 2021-22, Walker got the chance to have the ball in his hands more to initiate offense than he did as a Houston freshman and there were hints that he could have a little more in him as a creator. The 3-point shooting in his lone college season didn’t send up any red flags but also didn’t leave scouts convinced he would evolve into an above-average perimeter shooter on the type of volume that would command defenses to respect the threat. Walker’s appeal would broaden if there’s a belief that he would be able to function offensively as something other than a modern-day power forward. Is there any off-the-dribble potential here that would allow Walker to play as an oversized wing? If so, the dynamic changes for him.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 7-2½  – That was Walker’s wingspan as measured at the NBA draft combine, giving him a major positive ratio for his height and increasing Walker’s appeal as a defensive wrecking ball.

MONEY QUOTE: “When I say this I mean it: Jarace has no ego. He doesn’t. His ego is winning. … The great thing about this young man is how coachable he is. He tries to do everything you ask him to do.” – Houston coach Kelvin Sampson to Paper City magazine, November 2022.

PISTONS FIT: If Weaver and his staff look hard at Walker and see a guy equally comfortable guarding lithe wings as more conventional power forwards and project his burgeoning off-the-dribble game and 3-point shot will enable him to be equally versatile at the offensive end, then the fit would be about as perfect as it gets. Because on the makeup front, Walker – from all outward appearances, at least – appears to tick off all the boxes Weaver covets. When Weaver talks about re-creating the Pistons in the image of the championship-era teams built on toughness and defense, Walker would seem to embody those traits. But Weaver has drafted Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren and traded for Marvin Bagley III and James Wiseman and the presence of all four of those players means Stewart is now a full-time power forward and Bagley likely will spend the bulk of his time there as well. The depth chart gets awfully crowded if Walker gets penciled in with that as his primary position.

BOTTOM LINE: When you’re drafting fifth, it’s essential to take the player you believe will have the most impact on winning games three, four and five years down the road. If there’s a player who stands above the field in the estimation of your front office as one who could grow into an All-Star or even an All-NBA player, you take him and sort out the fit later. So that’s what it comes down to with Walker. Even if you’re unsure of his ability to be something other than a power forward or a small-ball center, if the assessment is that he can do those things well enough to rank as one of the NBA’s best before his rookie contract expires then take him and worry about how the chips fall down the road. The athleticism, strength, length and toughness figure to put Walker on the short list for the Pistons if he’s still available with the fifth pick. Words like those spoken by Sampson in the quote above will resonate heavily with NBA personnel evaluators and those will ring especially meaningfully to Weaver.