It’s draft day eve and the Pistons are almost on the clock. That gets us started in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Lee (Los Angeles): OK, no equivocating. You are responsible for making the Pistons pick on draft night. The first 11 picks have gone without surprises and all your top 11 picks are now gone. Who would you pick at 12? We recognize that Stan Van Gundy and his team have information you don’t, so their pick is likely to be different than yours. Please name one player.
Langlois: There’s been a fairly clear consensus top 10 for about a month. It consists of five point guards – Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith, De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina – plus wings Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, shooting guard Malik Monk and power forwards Lauri Markkanen and Jonathan Isaac. Do those turn out to be the top 10 picks, in some order? There’s about a 50-50 chance of that. And, if so, then Charlotte holds the key for the Pistons. The Hornets, picking at 11, are probably focused on three players: Zach Collins, Luke Kennard and Donovan Mitchell. I have no idea which way the Hornets will go, but my best guess is that the Pistons will wind up choosing between the two players left from that trio. If I was picking in a vacuum, I’d take Collins. I think he’s got the highest ceiling of the three. I also think he’s least likely to contribute next season. He’s going to need to gain strength to play inside. I think he’ll eventually be capable of playing in a variety of roles – a more or less traditional center spot with his back to the basket, as a conventional power forward or as a stretch five or stretch four, and that type of versatility is why I think he’s got a bright career ahead – but it’s going to take some time. He’s 19 and you could see with how foul prone he was at Gonzaga that defense will present a fairly prolonged learning curve for him. Mitchell probably has the best shot of playing immediately and holding his own because of his defensive potential and rounded skill set. Kennard has the greatest scoring potential and that has to be attractive to Stan Van Gundy. I think Mitchell is the player most likely to have a long, productive NBA career of the three. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s also the player most likely to be taken by Charlotte. So, proverbial gun to the head, I’m going to say the Pistons pick Kennard over Collins. And now I’m prepared to be dead wrong on draft night when the Pistons take T.J. Leaf or Justin Patton.
Nick (Brisbane, Australia): We have seen some stars come out of fairly recent drafts around where we are picking like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Klay Thompson and the Greek Freak. Do you see any real sleepers like that in this year’s draft that might have star potential? And with all the scouting that goes on these days, what was the reason mentioned why they were able to drop out of the top 10 and be passed on by so many teams, including us in a few cases?
Langlois: There’s not anyone as mysterious as Giannis Antetokounmpo (or Bismack Biyombo or Thon Maker, for that matter) in this year’s draft. The only international player who didn’t play college basketball in the United States expected to be a lottery pick is French teen Frank Ntilikina, who’s been on the radar and assiduously scouted for the past several years. Leonard, George and Thompson weren’t complete surprises. The question with Leonard was whether he could develop anything from a raw offensive arsenal to make him something other than a rebounding small forward with the athleticism to develop into an elite defender. I distinctly remember reading about George and how he could be a star if it all came together. Thompson’s rap was athleticism, which seems silly now. The mere fact those three played at San Diego State, Fresno State and Washington State – not the places ever in the running for elite recruits and only rarely for top-100 high school players – speaks to the fact they were always outside the top tier of players at younger ages. Keep in mind that judging what a player will become when he’s 18 or 19 – except in the vast minority of cases when a prodigy like LeBron James or Anthony Davis paints a clear picture of his potential at that age – is like trying to predict what a jigsaw puzzle will represent with only 20 percent of the pieces in place. Is there anyone who projects to go late in the lottery or beyond in this draft with that type of all-NBA potential? I suppose the guys who would be mentioned by most who fit that description include the two players with major health questions, Harry Giles and O.G. Anunoby; maybe one of the young big guys like Justin Patton, another player ignored by major college programs; or perhaps a few of the players who’ve seen their draft stock rise rather sharply since the college season ended and could be under consideration by the Pistons, Luke Kennard and Donovan Mitchell. If Kennard is able to carry over his scoring versatility to the NBA, where some wonder if he’ll be athletic enough to get off the same types of shots, or if Mitchell can adapt his athleticism to an offensive skill set the way Leonard has, for instance, they could emerge as big-time scorers a few years into their careers.
Josh (Ferndale, Mich.): Why did Stanley Johnson take a step back last year?
Langlois: Short answer: Don’t know. Can offer some guesses. Last summer the Pistons had Johnson focus on skill work – reworking his shooting mechanics, drilling refined footwork into his head after some issues with traveling as a rookie, a bunch of stuff that dealt with nuance. Stanley Johnson, for all he accomplished as a four-year starter and state champion at one of California’s great programs and as a freshman at Arizona, never really had to worry about nuance. He was a physically overwhelming player. His physical advantage, obviously, is narrower in the NBA. Last year turned out to be a transition year for him from a mental standpoint. I think he was thinking rather than playing on instinct. There was a physical component, too. He’s a naturally powerful, bulky player and he came to camp a little too thick. I wouldn’t say overweight or out of shape; clearly, he’s an elite athlete with a freakish physique. But he was a half-step slower than he needed to be and that didn’t help when he was also slowing himself down a fraction of a second thinking rather than reacting instinctively. Getting him back on the path he appeared to be on as a rookie will be one of the biggest factors for the Pistons having a season more like 2015-16 than ’16-17.
Ian (Westland, Mich.): The Pistons need a weak-side rim protector. I’m drafting Jordan Bell at 12. He’s this year’s Draymond Green. Then I’m trading Tobias Harris for Eric Bledsoe. I’d put Bledsoe, Pope, Johnson, Bell and Drummond on the floor to play defense and develop together.
Langlois: That could be a top-five defensive team, Ian. I suspect they’d have to hold teams to about 85 points a game to play .500 basketball because that’s a team destined to finish way down the rankings in 3-point shooting and 3-point attempts in an era where it’s very tough to win without perimeter scoring punch. I mean, Caldwell-Pope is the best 3-point shooter of the bunch and Bledsoe is the only other player who represents so much as a credible threat to launch one, keeping in mind that Johnson through two seasons is a 30 percent 3-point shooter. Bell is a guy I suspect a lot of teams will bypass in the middle and late first round, all the while knowing that the guy they take might not wind up making as much of an impact on the NBA as Bell. He’s got all the tools to be an elite defender. If he finds the right fit, he could become an instant contributor on a very good team. And if he gets drafted in the 20s, chances are he’ll find himself on a very good team. But as for comparing him to Draymond Green, well, that’s a major stretch. If he hits his mark, he’s got a chance to approach Green’s standing as a defender. The thing that really separates Green is he’s a unique player at both ends of the floor as a power forward who can make plays off the dribble. Bell might have some of Green’s traits as a defender, but if he can’t hold his own on offense he won’t be on the court nearly as much as Green – and, in that case, you can’t be an all-league defender as a part-time player.
Paul (Phoenix): Since the Lakers want an additional top-12 pick, I suggest the Pistons send the 12th pick to Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe, then the Suns package the fourth and 12th picks to the Lakers for the No. 2 pick. Detroit keeps Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and has a dynamic backcourt with two excellent defensive players. Trade Reggie Jackson for a late first rounder or early second rounder or package with Hilliard or Gbinije.
Langlois: The difference between Bledsoe’s salary next year and the cap hold for the 12th pick is about $12 million, Paul. It would blow a hole in the Pistons’ budget. They’re already looking at flirting with the luxury tax. (And it’s a trade they couldn’t even make until July 1.) The second half of your proposal – trading Reggie Jackson – would alleviate that, but it’s not that easy to find teams willing to deal No. 1 picks for veterans earning well into eight figures, as Jackson will next season, unless they’re getting a sure thing. The way Jackson played after returning from his knee injury last year would make that a difficult trade for the Pistons to pull off. They remain confident that Jackson will come back at full health and full speed. But until other teams see the proof of it, his trade value is, by all logic, depressed. And since your question came in, the Lakers accomplished their goal of adding another No. 1 pick – though not a lottery pick – by dealing D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick.
Kobina (Decatur, Ga.): I believe being bad is better than being mediocre from an organizational standpoint. So after nearly a decade of finishing no better than two games over .500, why not take a risk on Harry Giles with the No. 12 pick? He could be a transformational talent and, if not, being bad is better, anyway.
Langlois: The Pistons were six games over .500 a season ago, not two, and believed they were on an ascendant trajectory. If Reggie Jackson hadn’t missed the first 21 games and returned at something considerably less than himself, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable organizational conclusion to believe they wouldn’t have regressed by seven wins without that circumstance. Stan Van Gundy has made it clear he isn’t pinning the entirety of last season on Jackson’s influence, though. They’ll assess Giles for what he is and what he can be, but part of what he is includes two serious knee injuries. The Pistons will defer to their medical team for expertise on whether they think Giles is seriously diminished because of the past injuries or more prone to further injuries because of his history. If they give the “all clear” on Giles – a very big if – then the Pistons will evaluate him without regard for his knee history. Then they’ll have to answer what he will become on offense. He didn’t show or do much in his only season at Duke. As a young player, he was most effective running the floor and scoring in the ways Andre Drummond does for the Pistons – put-backs and lobs. His best trait was his extraordinary quickness and agility for a big man, but there wasn’t a go-to move or any sign that he’d thrive as a face-up shooter. If the injuries have robbed him of even 5 percent of his explosiveness, can he offer anything on offense to make up for the fact that it’s not at all certain any more that he can become an elite defender? Without knowing the answers to those questions – or having an idea based on what limited available scouting exists and expert medical opinions – I’d have a tough time pulling the trigger. How much more NBA front offices have gleaned will define their confidence in drafting him. As for the whole “if we can’t be great, let’s be awful strategy,” I’ve debated and rejected the logic of it ad nauseum. I’m not a fan. I get the counter argument, but banking on the lottery is a losing proposition.
Eric (Wayne, N.J.): Paul George wants to leave the Indiana Pacers. They should trade him in order for them to get something in return.
Langlois: Well, sure. But the whole world has been notified by George’s side that he intends to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2018. How much is anyone going to give up for one year of Paul George? Cleveland would be the obvious team in the East willing to roll some assets together for an all-in season, but what can the Cavs realistically offer the Pacers? Well, read on …
Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Have the Pistons been active in the Paul George market? Who would say no to Drummond, the No. 12 pick and a future pick to Indiana, George to Cleveland and Kevin Love to the Pistons?
Langlois: The Pistons would be left with Boban Marjanovic at center and no obvious means of getting another one after giving up the 12th pick and having no cap space. They’d have the mid-level exception. If I had to guess, they’d probably be looking at somebody like Willie Reed with that type of money. That’s the same Willie Reed who spent most of 2015-16 playing for the Grand Rapids Drive. That’s not a crazy proposal you put forward, but it would practically demand that the Pistons make another trade for a big man that would cut into their perimeter core. It’s not a trade I would recommend, but it’s not unreasonable.