AUBURN HILLS – How deep into the playoffs do you suppose this lineup would go: MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas at point guard with Khris Middleton of Milwaukee next to him at shooting guard; another MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard, at small forward and another Milwaukee star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, at the other forward spot; in the middle, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert?
You think that team might have Cleveland looking a little wobbly to get out of the East?
Off the bench, let’s bring perimeter firepower in Zach LaVine, Devin Booker and Rodney Hood. Backing up Thomas at the point, how about Eric Bledsoe and Dennis Schroder? I suppose we could find some minutes for Draymond Green, too, in whatever role deemed necessary. A little more size needed behind Gobert? OK, clear some time for Nikola Jokic.
Yeah, that seems like a pretty solid team.
It has one thing in common: They were all taken outside the top 12 picks in drafts from 2010-15.
The 2011 draft alone provided the Pistons three such starters: Marcus Morris, taken 14th; Tobias Harris, 19th; and Reggie Jackson, 24th. Jon Leuer, who finished sixth on the team in 2016-17 minutes played, was taken 40th in the same draft.
Some drafts are deeper than others, but virtually every draft is going to produce someone – at least someone, perhaps several someones – good enough to start and probably good enough to play in an All-Star game or two.
Now the challenge for Pistons general manager Jeff Bower, assistant GM Jeff Nix, director of international scouting J.R. Holden and the rest of Stan Van Gundy’s inner cabinet will be to identify which player has the greatest potential to blossom out of the leftovers when at least 11 teams get to pick ahead of them – on the 93.5 percent odds that they pick 12th and the 97.4 percent odds that they don’t pull a top-three pick – and their time at the podium comes June 22.
Figuring out the 11 or 12 who’ll go before them are is part of the puzzle they’ll try to piece together prior to the draft. Then they must decide how much they’re willing to risk betting on a player with a high ceiling-low floor makeup vs. the safer choice offered by someone with a more narrow bandwidth.
In that latter category, let’s use North Carolina’s Justin Jackson as the example. Projected as the No. 13 pick by DraftExpress.com, Jackson has three years on college basketball’s biggest stage on his resume and averaged 18.4 points in the ACC last season.
There’s a decent chance, on the right roster, he can walk right into somebody’s rotation and hold up well as a 22-year-old rookie. You probably won’t find many scouts giving him great odds to play in an All-Star game someday, but you might not find one saying he’ll be in the D-League fighting for a 10-day contract in three years, either.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a look at four players that Pistons scouts just might see as having a chance to become the next Leonard (drafted 15th in 2011), Antetokounmpo (15th in 2013) or Booker (13th in 2015).
O.G. Anunoby – It’s been three years since recently fired Indiana coach Tom Crean discovered the unheralded Anunoby at an AAU tournament where he was stationed to be seen by another, higher-profile recruit. At 6-foot-8, his athleticism popped as a freshman on a good Indiana team. He flashed All-American potential over the first half of his sophomore season – helping the Hoosiers to wins over Kansas and North Carolina – before a serious knee injury ended his season in mid-January.
Would the Pistons be willing to wait on Anunoby if the knee checks out OK but doctors feel he’d have to miss a big chunk or perhaps all of his rookie season? If they think his skill set will catch up to his athleticism, perhaps. It’s a lot easier to exercise that sort of patience with a pick late in the lottery than it is in the top six, seven or eight.
Terrance Ferguson – In a 2016 McDonald’s All-American game loaded with names you’ll hear called early on draft night – Malik Monk, Josh Jackson, Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, Zach Collins, all players we’re not even talking about here on the fairly strong chance they’ll all be gone before the Pistons pick – Ferguson looked right at home. He was headed for Arizona when questions about his college eligibility steered him to a pro season in Australia. At 6-foot-7, as measured at last spring’s Nike Hoop Summit, Ferguson has two qualities that entice scouts: a 3-point stroke and athleticism.
He’d almost certainly spend considerable time in the D-League as a rookie. But for a Pistons team that finished 28th in the NBA in 3-point percentage in 2016-17, the prospect of adding shooting in a league where success is increasingly tied to 3-point efficiency is something to be explored at every opportunity.
Jarrett Allen – A comparison to Myles Turner might be too simplistic and irrelevant to matter, but scouts are human and who can overlook the similarities between Turner and Allen, Texas natives who came in as five-star recruits and spent one season in Austin while putting up similar numbers and carrying similar frames? They played in different systems under different coaches, but Turner (6-foot-11, 243 pounds) and Allen (6-foot-11, 224 pounds at 19 years old) strike a lot of the same notes.
Allen put up better raw numbers (13.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) than Turner (10.0, 6.5, 2.6) but did it in 10 more minutes per game. Allen doesn’t have a 3-point shot yet but shows mid-range potential. In that same 2016 McDonald’s All-American game, Allen played 19 minutes and had five blocked shots – in a game where defense is famously discouraged – to go with nine points and six rebounds.
Harry Giles – At least until the NBA draft combine next month in Chicago – and maybe beyond that, depending on the decision of Giles and his representatives to submit to medical testing there or in an environment more under their control – the status of Giles is easily the biggest wild card of the NBA draft. Giles’ raw potential has been long known. He finished as the No. 2 prospect in the high school class of 2016 according to Rivals.com despite the fact he’d already suffered two serious knee injuries: a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus of his left knee that cost him his high school sophomore season, then a torn right ACL that wiped out his senior season.
Before that second injury, though, he affirmed his status as an elite prospect by starring as a 17-year-old for Team USA as it won the FIBA U-19 world championship in Greece. At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wing span, Giles is light on his feet and explosive around the rim. He’s not a polished scorer and would be a tough fit in today’s NBA as a power forward unless and until he develops a reliable jump shot beyond 15 feet, but he could be an elite defender and rebounder. After a slow start at Duke coming off a third knee procedure – an arthroscopy of the left knee, the earlier injury with more extensive damage – Giles showed flashes in big games but only once played more than 20 minutes in a game.
Where might Giles be drafted? DraftExpress.com has him ranked 25th; ESPN.com puts him 12th. That’s a rare disparity that likely is an accurate reflection of the uncertainty in NBA front offices. The medicals will go a long way toward bringing some clarity to the picture, but ultimately it will require a leap of faith by one front office.
Sometimes, those leaps reel in a player who blossoms into an MVP candidate.