Wojo: Cunningham is safe pick for Pistons, but beware, Weaver doesn’t always play it safe

Detroit News

Troy Weaver has been willing to do just about anything as Pistons GM. Trades, signings, tanking, draft maneuvering. When you think he’s done dealing, he deals again.

But he wouldn’t do this, would he? He wouldn’t pass on Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham and trade the No. 1 selection, would he? I don’t think he will, but I think he would, for the right price.

Let’s be clear here — there are very few safe picks, even at the top of the NBA Draft. So the rumors swirl, and as Weaver debunks them, he also feeds them. He confirmed Tuesday he hasn’t settled on his choice, or even decided if he plans to stay at No. 1. He said there are several worthy candidates and he’s still turning over stones and talking to teams.

“Everybody’s made the pick but us,” Weaver said. “We’re doing our due diligence. It’s all bunk — I don’t really comment on rumors. I just say don’t believe everything you read.”

I understand the debate and the delay and the speculation. Weaver has no incentive to make his intentions known until he absolutely must. It’s easy for a consensus to build in a vacuum, especially if the presumptive top pick is, say, Anthony Davis or LeBron James. Cunningham is a terrific prospect, a 6-8 point forward who does everything well, but isn’t a once-in-a-decade freakish talent.

More: GM Troy Weaver, Pistons still considering all options with No. 1 pick

Weaver said from the moment the Pistons won the lottery he would deeply investigate four or five players. We know the top four: Cunningham, G League shooting guard Jalen Green, USC 7-footer Evan Mobley and Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs.

Green, a 6-5 athletic scorer, has created a stir, rising up the mock drafts to a consensus No. 2. Mobley is the type of unique player who could have the highest upside but carries more risk. So it’s not a red flag or red herring or even necessarily a smokescreen when NBA insiders murmur Cunningham might not be the Pistons’ guaranteed choice. ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski Tweeted Monday: “Detroit’s internal meetings are still revolving around three players for the No. 1 pick on Thursday night — Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley, sources tell ESPN. Detroit isn’t fully there yet on committing to Cunningham with their first overall choice.”

According to NBA Draft guru Marc Stein, Green’s workout with the Pistons was so impressive, they’re reevaluating. Perhaps this is the “bunk” to which Weaver referred, or maybe it’s a last-ditch leak to flush out the best trade offers.

The Rockets have the No. 2 pick and Cunningham is from Texas, and they have tons of assets (three first-rounders) to make a blockbuster deal. They’re reportedly hotly pursuing him, perhaps dangling their pick and former Piston Christian Wood (21 ppg for the Rockets).

The Oklahoma City Thunder, who also own three first-round picks and are Weaver’s former employer, reportedly offered the No. 6 selection and rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s only 23 and averaged 23.7 ppg. Tempting? If you think Cunningham will be better than Gilgeous-Alexander, no. And if Weaver turned down his mentor, Thunder GM Sam Presti, he’ll turn down anybody, right?

Yes. Sure. Maybe.

“I don’t see Shaq or LeBron (in this draft), but I see some high-level guys,” Weaver said. “That’s why it’s a tough decision to vet it out. We like all those guys at the top. You don’t know where they’re gonna end up, but they’re projecting to be very good players.”

Weaver is almost clinical in his analysis, devoid of emotion. When Cunningham was in Detroit for his workout last week, he showed up at Comerica Park and gushed about the Pistons, saying “I love Detroit.”

Maybe he figured he’s the choice and wants to connect with Detroit fans. Or maybe he was uncertain and felt compelled to remind the Pistons how badly he wants to go No. 1. Either way,

Weaver isn’t interested in returning the verbal affection, not just yet. Is it all part of the annual GM deception game? To a degree, sure.

I’m not here to generate faux intrigue. And if Weaver didn’t have his reputation for cleverness and boldness, we wouldn’t have this discussion. But in his initial draft with the Pistons last year, he turned one first-round pick into three — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey — and all are potential starters. Even his second-rounder, Saben Lee, is a keeper.

The fact is, the Pistons finished with the most-productive awful record (20-52) in franchise history and earned the right (and pressure) to pick No. 1. Cunningham looks ideal, both for his ability and his character, although as a ball-dominant wing he could usurp Hayes, who showed flashes when he wasn’t injured. Green is considered a superior athlete in the traditional measurables of quickness, speed and leaping ability. He’s also raw, averaged 17.9 ppg in the G League and shot 36.5% on 3s.

Mobley may be the most fascinating prospect of all, an elite rim-protector with ball-handling and shooting skills seldom seen in a 7-footer. He has not fully tested his range but has the frame and makeup of the new-age versatile big man. He could be the best fit because the Pistons crave a defensive presence, but Weaver knows they need a lot more than that.

“We won 20 games — all the guys fit,” he said. “We like them all. Sometimes you can look at fit, but we’re not in that position as of yet.”

At the risk of looking like an idiot, I’ll offer my best-case comparisons for the top three players.

Cunningham? High-end comp could be Grant Hill. Even higher would be Luka Doncic, which is interesting. Cunningham averaged 20.1 points per game and shot 40% on 3s in his lone college season. He also averaged more turnovers (4.0) than assists (3.5), although he played on an underwhelming roster.

Green? High-end comparison could be Bradley Beal, or even higher, Dwyane Wade. As a volume scorer, he could play alongside true point guard Hayes.

Mobley? High-end comparison could be Chris Bosh. Mobley was a shot-blocking machine for a USC team built on defense. He has great offensive touch at the rim and shot 30% on 3s.

The pressure is on, not just because of who Weaver picks, but who he bypasses. Among the No. 1 overall picks the past eight drafts: Deandre Ayton, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, not exactly franchise-changers.

“I don’t see any added pressure of getting it right,” Weaver said. “Batting cleanup or batting first, you gotta hit the ball.”

Out of the park, preferably. The obvious pick isn’t necessarily the wrong pick, and sometimes you don’t need to over-think it. For now, I’ll assume he’s sticking with Cunningham. But Weaver doesn’t play it safe or scared, and from the bunk outside to the Pistons’ bunker inside, nothing would be a shocker.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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