Stay, or go? Predicting how Detroit Pistons will handle their free agents

Detroit Free Press

It’s been a quiet offseason for the Detroit Pistons so far. Outside of winning the lottery,  it’s been a long wait for the NBA draft and free agency.

The draft takes place July 29, and free agency begins the following week. The Pistons won’t be major players in free agency, but they have five free agents to make decisions on.

Hamidou Diallo, Dennis Smith Jr., and two-way guards Saben Lee and Frank Jackson will all enter restricted free agency, and Wayne Ellington will be an unrestricted free agent.

Here are my predictions for each player and the salary they could receive if they stay.

More: Three trades that could nab Detroit Pistons an extra first-round pick in 2021 NBA draft

Hamidou Diallo: Stay

Predicted contract: Three years, $9 million-$12 million

Diallo appears to be in the Pistons’ long term plans. He was acquired from Oklahoma City ahead of the March trade deadline and played well during his 20 games in Detroit, averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game while shooting 49.2% overall and 39% from 3. He finished the season averaging 18 points and 7.3 rebounds during his final six games.  Including a career-high 35-point outburst against the Charlotte Hornets on May 4.

“I told him a lot of players don’t get this opportunity to take the bull by the horn,” Weaver said during his end-of-season news conference. “He has that chance now to come in and really turn his career into a huge positive. He’s been teetering up and down in OKC, injuries here, the different construct of the team. Now he’s here with a young group. Hopefully we can get him, talk to him and continue him with the group.”

The Pistons have Diallo’s Full Bird rights, meaning they can match any outside offer and won’t need cap space to do so. Diallo will receive interest, and retaining him could be pricey. Between $9 million and $12 million annually feels fair  for a proven perimeter defender who still has to shoot the ball well enough to be a full-time starter.

Saben Lee: Stay

Predicted contract: Two years starting at around $1.5 million

Detroit’s lone second-round pick last year signed a two-way contract, but ended up becoming a key rotation player during the season. Lee started seven games and showed upside as a defender and playmaker. He needs to develop his shooting, as he took 23 3-pointers last season. He outplayed his draft position and appears to be a long-term commitment for the Pistons. Weaver always includes Lee in Detroit’s “Core Four,” which also features Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey.

Because Lee is entering restricted free agency after a single season with the Pistons, the franchise holds Non-Bird rights on him. They can offer a contract starting at his qualifying offer, which is close to $1.5 million. Assuming he doesn’t get an outside offer — though there’s always a chance that another team decides to gamble on his upside — I think his next contract with the Pistons will start at that number.

Frank Jackson: Stay

Predicted contract: $3.5-5 million 

Jackson emerged as one of Detroit’s most reliable shooters last season,  knocking down 40.7% of his 3-pointers. He also settled in as an off-the-bench sparkplug during the back half of the season, averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting in 25 minutes per game during his final 13 games of the season. His defensive metrics were strong. At 6 feet 3, he’s strictly an undersized off-guard at this stage of his career. His shooting alone makes him a valuable player — particularly for a Pistons team that didn’t shoot well last season.

It’s plausible that Jackson will receive outside interest, given that he’s only 23 and just put together the best season of his career. A bigger offer could price him outside of Detroit’s range, since that the Pistons could operate as an above-the-cap team in free agency. The Pistons could potentially (ideally?) retain him by using the $3.7 million bi-annual exception, but it only takes one team to push the price up further.

Dennis Smith Jr.: Go

Detroit traded for Smith ahead of the trade deadline, but didn’t get the evaluation period it wanted for the fourth-year point guard. Injuries limited Smith to playing in just seven of the Pistons’ final 35 games. He plays a position of strength for the team, with Hayes and Lee both likely returning and Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham, a lead ball-handler, potentially arriving next week via the No. 1 pick. Veteran point guard Cory Joseph, who is on a partially-guaranteed contract, could also return next season.

The Pistons are facing a potential roster crunch. They currently have nine players fully guaranteed for next season. The No. 1 pick puts them at 10. Diallo, Lee and Jackson returning would make it 13. Add Joseph and a free agency signing, and that’s a full roster. Ultimately, the Pistons don’t have much incentive to bring Smith back.

Wayne Ellington: Go

After the trade deadline, sources told the Free Press that the Pistons are interested in retaining  Wayne Ellington next season. He was Detroit’s best shooter, knocking down 42.2% of his outside shots, and was a valuable mentor in the locker room. He’ll also turn 34 in November. My guess is that he’ll end up signing with a contender, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him come back.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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