A look at ’16 NBA draft class a useful reminder of challenges rookies face

AUBURN HILLS – It says something about the 2016 draft that the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year – had he been able to play more than 31 games, at least – was a 2014 pick, Joel Embiid. Instead, it will probably go to either another ’14 pick, Dario Saric, or 2016 second-rounder Malcolm Brogdon.

What it doesn’t say about the ’16 draft is that it is destined to be remembered as one of history’s weakest. Too soon for that. Ben Simmons, the No.1 pick, didn’t suit up for a game due to a foot injury. One-and-done lottery picks Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray and Marquese Chriss could blossom into stars soon enough.

But there are enough doubts about the quality of the group that the Pistons should already feel even better about landing Henry Ellenson at 18. They had him pegged as a top-10 pick and like him even more today than they did when he fell into their laps last June. His offensive skill set is everything they’d hoped and Stan Van Gundy saw early what you can’t ever really know about a rookie until you coach him – both a desire to be great and the work ethic to get there.

Of their players who didn’t contribute regularly in 2016-17, Ellenson is the one with the best chance to make an impact next season – and that includes whichever player the Pistons wind up selecting in the June 22 draft, where there is an overwhelming likelihood that they’ll pick either 12th or 13th. For a team whose offense sunk from 15th to 25th in efficiency, there is no small appeal in Ellenson’s natural scoring ability.

A few months ago, picking 12th seemed likely to produce a significant player. But as always seems to be the case, the closer the draft gets the more skepticism emerges about its depth and quality. A constant refrain from scouts over the course of the winter was that it was an unusually deep draft with teams likely to get starting-caliber talent well into the teens and beyond, perhaps.

Now? Well, ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who has a strong working knowledge of the international field as well, Tweeted this Monday morning: “NBA teams will tell you draft stops at a certain number in 1st 8-10 picks. As I do my Top 30 for Combine, hard to get excited past 10.”

Not trying to be a buzz kill, but if you’re a Pistons fan who figured the silver lining for missing the playoffs was a lottery pick in a strong draft class, well, tempered expectations ought to be in order. The combination of a select few tantalizing prospects who unexpectedly bypassed the draft – looking at you, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges – and the usual nitpicking as the draft nears makes the class, perhaps, less appealing than originally thought.

Worth noting that what Fraschilla is hearing doesn’t necessarily reflect the consensus view and might have nothing to do with the assessment of Van Gundy’s scouts.

But also fair to guess that no matter how the draft shakes out for the Pistons, assuming they don’t land a top-three pick, Van Gundy isn’t going to craft a game plan for 2017-18 based on the draft. Just as the Pistons signed Jon Leuer in free agency a week after drafting Ellenson, they’ll address their roster needs as they see fit for next season with relatively little regard for the results of the draft.

In the roughly 20 years since early entry has become widespread – the freakishly gifted Chris Webber stayed two years at Michigan, remember, and there was still some debate about whether he would return for a third year, as Fab Five teammates Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard did – the draft has become increasingly more speculative. That’s just common sense. It’s tougher to project players at 18 or 19 than it is at 21 or 22.

For every instant-impact lottery pick like Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis, there are a dozen – two or three dozen, really – who need two or three full seasons before beginning to show full form.

Here’s a few facts from the 2016-17 rookie class that reinforce the wisdom of tempered expectations:

  • Only 12 rookies attempted two or more 3-point shots per game and only two of them shot at better than the league average: Brogdon at 40.4 percent and Buddy Hield at 39.4 percent. Both were four-year college players.
  • Only eight rookies played 20 or more minutes per game and only two – Brogdon and Oklahoma City’s Domantas Sabonis – were part of playoff teams. Both were eliminated in the first round. Neither were one and done.
  • Not a single rookie averaged five rebounds a game. Brogdon and Tyler Ulis, another second-rounder, were the only rookies to average more than three assists. Neither were one and done.

There’s a better than 50-50 chance the Pistons wind up drafting a college freshman or a comparably experienced international player with their lottery pick. The odds are way less than that he becomes a significant contributor as a rookie. If you’re looking for a newcomer to make a dent next season, Henry Ellenson – not entirely new – is the runaway favorite.

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