AUBURN HILLS – The draft is 75 days away. It won’t be until the last 75 hours or so when teams put their draft boards together. Everything you read between now and then about where teams have certain players ranked, take it with a grain – or a box, more aptly – of salt.
There won’t be many more opportunities to scout players live under meaningful basketball conditions – zero opportunities, in many cases – but there is still a great volume of work to be done in player evaluation.
That includes videotape reviews of college and international games, medical checkups wherever possible, the NBA draft combine, trips to Europe and elsewhere to catch league and playoff games, predraft workouts both at team headquarters and those arranged by agents, psychological profiling, analytics applications and investigative background checks.
NBA teams spend tens of millions on payroll. Expenses and revenues have risen in lockstep, raising the price tag on every front-office decision. Smart organizations – and there aren’t many that don’t fit that category any more – have greatly expanded their staffing and invested more heavily in helping inform those multimillion-dollar decisions that go into stocking a 15-man roster.
The most cost-effective way to build a roster is to get it right in the draft, where cost control comes over the first four years of a player’s NBA career. You can’t have a roster entirely filled with players on eight-figure deals, so adding a player or two every year worthy of seeing the floor allows franchises to spend more freely on proven commodities in free agency or via trade acquisition.
The Pistons go into the May 16 lottery in the No. 12 position, which virtually guarantees that’s where they’ll pick. Here’s a quick look – keeping in mind that the heavy work of player evaluation is yet to come – at the players likely out of reach to them at No. 12, those possibly still available and a few long-shot gambles to consider, based on anecdotal discussions with NBA scouts and widely available scouting reports from credible draft analysts.
As good as gone (4) – Players with a near 100 percent certainty to be selected well before the No. 12 pick – barring a red flag for health or otherwise – are point guards Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball and athletic wings Josh Jackson, who declared for the draft this week and signed with an agent, and Jayson Tatum. Jackson is a Detroiter who finished his high school career in California before choosing Kansas over Michigan State and Arizona. All four are American-born college freshmen.
Likely to be top-10 picks (5) – Kentucky teammates De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk figure to be off the board before the Pistons pick. Fox has yet to show he can shoot the 3-pointer – under 25 percent from the shorter college arc – but is dynamic in virtually everything else. Monk might be the best shooter in the draft. His only question mark is less than ideal size for a shooting guard. North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith showed no ill effects of a torn ACL that cost him his high school senior season. Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen, a rare high-level prospect from Finland, is a 7-footer with a smooth 3-point stroke who showed signs of interior toughness in the NCAA tournament. Florida State’s 6-foot-11 Jonathan Isaac is pencil thin but produced at a high level in the ACC and could be a star as he matures physically.
On the bubble (7) – French point guard Frank Ntilikina has great size and, at 18, pro experience in Europe. Gonzaga 7-footer Zach Collins wasn’t exactly a secret before the Final Four, but his performances there – especially in the semifinal win over South Carolina – might have put him out of reach to the Pistons at the 12th pick. (It didn’t help, either, when Michigan State’s Miles Bridges elected to return for his sophomore season.) Texas freshman Jarrett Allen, at 6-foot-11, is a probable lottery pick but also an unlikely rookie contributor. American-born teen Terrance Ferguson skipped his freshman year at Arizona over NCAA eligibility issues to play professionally in Australia; at 6-foot-7 with athleticism and 3-point range, he could appeal to a Pistons team that could use offensive punch. North Carolina junior Justin Jackson was the No. 11 prospect according to Rivals.com in the high school class of 2014 – one spot ahead of fellow Houstonian Justise Winslow. His scoring versatility and length on the wing are appealing and he could be rotation ready. Then there are two high-end athletes whose draft status will depend largely on how they check out medically: Duke big man Harry Giles, considered the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2016 despite two ACL tears on his resume who finished the season healthy; and Indiana wing O.G. Anunoby, who could miss all of his rookie season after suffering an ACL tear in January.
Later this week, we’ll look at the gems in the past several drafts taken with the 12th pick or beyond.