Why Detroit Pistons may go Chet Holmgren over Paolo Banchero if they pick No. 1

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons won’t be so lucky to win back-to-back NBA draft lotteries, will they?

History says it’s highly unlikely, but their record — 5-25 more than a quarter through the 2021-22 season — says the Pistons should have the best shot at the first pick of July’s selections.

So now we get to spend the next several months mourning on-court losses, analyzing prospects and debating which youngster best complements Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Co. moving forward. (As well as trying to decide which potential Michigan basketball lottery pick will come off the board first; more on that later.)

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The upcoming draft class is dominated by stringy wings known for other skills besides simply scoring. Paolo Banchero of Duke is a three-level scorer and matchup nightmare as a 6-foot-10 initiator of offense. Chet Holmgren is Gonzaga’s 7-foot “unicorn” with a smart defensive game and room for offensive growth. Auburn’s Jabari Smith is the youngest of the top-ranked trio; an 18-year-old forward/center with the length, explosion, defensive versatility and touch that scouts dream of.

Of course, this is the NBA, home of the lottery. Although the Pistons have half the wins of the worst team in the Western Conference and two fewer wins than any other team in the East, there’s no guarantee they will end up with pick No. 1.

So let’s take a look at what ESPN draft experts Mike Schmitz and Jonathan Givony are thinking as the calendar turns to 2022. Come for the Pistons predictions, stay to find out where the Wolverines star freshmen could land when they make the NBA leap:

Pistons take Chet Holmgren No. 1

In the event Detroit does get the 2022 No. 1 pick, it’ll be a tougher decision than in 2021. Cunningham had great competition from Evan Mobley and Jalen Green as the potential first pick, but the Oklahoma State guard all year long the top prospect on most draft boards.

Holmgren rose up high school recruiting rankings over his final prep season, which included a cameo in Michigan vs. fellow future projected lottery pick Emoni Bates, and remains one of the most tantalizing teens available.

The son of a former Minnesota Golden Gophers reserve big man, Holmgren continues to impress for No. 4 Gonzaga. Senior forward Drew Timme (17.1 points per game on 61.5% shooting from the field) is still the Bulldogs’ leader but Holmgren serves as the defensive linchpin with a startling 3.7 blocks per game.

Holmgren also flashed the outside shooting that has drawn comparison to former NBA All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, making 62.5% of his field goals and 37.1% of his 3-pointers. Holmgren is second on the team at 13.3 points per game and first with 8.5 rebounds.

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What are the other No. 1 options?

The draftnik don’t provide much insight on why they placed Holmgren No. 1 to the Pistons, Banchero No. 2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Smith No. 3 to the Orlando Magic and Purdue star guard Jaden Ivey to the Houston Rockets. (Bates’ Memphis teammate Jalen Duren, a nimble post, is the youngest draft-eligible player and is projected at No. 5 to the New Orleans Pelicans.)

One of those four players could rise up Pistons general manager Troy Weaver’s prospect board, or become Detroit’s best option if the lottery balls push them down the draft order.

A little more on each:

Banchero has long been projected a lottery pick, topping some preseason and midseaso rankings. An off-court headline may have dampened some of his shine, but he’s the kind of lengthy, talented wing/forward NBA teams have come to covet. He’s averaging 17.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 2.2 assists per game (33.3% shooting from 3) and preparing to lead the No. 2 Blue Devils through a gauntlet of an ACC league slate. There could be concerns that two of his best skills — ball-handling and facilitating — jut up against Cunningham’s most comfortable way to play. But that’s what you call a good problem to have.

Smith, one of the younger projected lottery picks, is enjoying a breakout campaign in his first season for Auburn. He was a five-star recruit who has been just as explosive, and maybe bit more polished, than advertised. If he can score from all three levels (16.2 ppg on 45.2% 3-point shooting through `2 games) at the pro level and his switchy defense holds, he just might be the best player in the class — even if he’s not quite as touted as the two names above.

Ivey should be a very familiar name to college hoops fans. He’s been one of the best players for Purdue, one of the top programs in the country the past half-decade, the past two season and looks like he may be the most NBA-ready of the clan. He’s a score-first guard who could be a snug fit on a Pistons perimeter light on one-on-one bucket-getters.

Duren’s countables won’t blow you away but he, and the rest of Memphis’ talented young roster, is still getting acclimated to the college game. He hasn’t flashed a 3-point shot yet, but a 6-11, freshly 18-year-old with the post footwork and dribbling ability Duren has won’t stay on the draft board for long.

Detroit native Jaden Hardy, now playing in the G League and Trevor Keels, a highly touted Duke freshman, could be options at guard as well.

Two Michigan basketball duo on lottery fringe

If you’re an NBA fans who’s not big on the Wolverines, maybe take in a couple U-M games this winter. Caleb Houstan has long been projected an NBA lottery pick, and while he’s not quite had the effect some may have expected (patience, people), the 6-7 wing is smooth as velvet and has the length to be a big-time NBA shotmaker. He just needs reps.

That’s why Givony has Houstan as a mid-first round pick to the Chicago Bulls at No. 18. Chicago could be a wonderful spot for Houston; a contending, veteran team that won’t lean on him quite as much as Michigan is this season. Houstan has long been the top option on top teams so a low-pressure situation where he can be a reserve may be perfect.

Instead of initiating offense against other teams’ best defenders, he’d have the chance to serve as catch-and-shoot ace, while getting the opportunity to grow his game in practice — under the tutelage of mid-range maven DeMar Derozan and potential scoring champ Zach LaVine.

Moussa Diabate, another “diaper dandy” playing for Juwan Howard, isn’t quite a first-round pick in this exercise, landing No. 37 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Diabate’s role there would be a little less clear; Cleveland is rebuilding but playing better than many expected in 2021.

The Cavs have stockpiled quality big men but have a dearth of basket-making wings and guards. Diabate, a post with impressive switchability and agility, could be a solid bench complement to last year’s No. 3 pick, Evan Mobley and provide a bit more footspeed on defense than current center Jarrett Allen. There’s also hope that he can be a solid outside shooter as well, which greatly increases his NBA ceiling.

And what about the Pistons’ second pick?

Hey, hey don’t forget about that second-rounder. Due to Weaver’s wheeling and dealing, the rights to the Pistons’ last picks are actually owned by San Antonio Spurs while Detroit retains the rights to Brookyln’s second-rounder.

Walker Kessler, Smith’s teammate at Auburn, is who Givony has the Pistons taking. From a sheer numbers standpoint, a center is a good option. Isaiah Stewart seems to be taking in a sophomore slump and Kelly Olynyk still has two more years left on his deal but clearly isn’t the big of the future.

Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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