Detroit Pistons’ NBA draft big board 1.0: Why Chet Holmgren is leading Jabari Smith

Detroit Free Press

The future looks bright for the Detroit Pistons, even in the midst of a 17-47 season.

Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey are settling in as primary scorers alongside Jerami Grant, spurring the team’s best basketball of the year and five wins in the past seven games.

Yet the Pistons, currently with the NBA’s third-worst record, are likely to finish with a bottom-four record. That gives them a significant chance to add another top pick to their core this offseason.

This draft isn’t as stacked as the 2021 class, which may end up being a deeper and more talented class than many pundits initially projected, but there are some extraordinarily talented players at the top of the 2022 lottery.

This is the first Pistons big board projection of the season, based on conversations across the league and on personal belief. March Madness will start soon, and it could reshape the board as we get closer to the lottery May 17 and draft on June 23.

Here’s what I believe the Pistons’ board currently looks like. (All statistics entering Saturday.)

1. Chet Holmgren, F/C, Gonzaga freshman

Averages: 14.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 3.5 blocks, 61.6% overall shooting, 43.8% from 3-point range (3.3 attempts).

I’m listing Holmgren at the top for now, but my sense is he and Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. are in the same tier for Detroit, with Duke forward Paolo Banchero slightly behind. Strong arguments can be made in favor of all three players, but Holmgren checks nearly every box for a modern big man. He may be too good — and too rare — a prospect for the Pistons to pass on.

He has been absurdly productive for the Zags. On offense, he’s an elite finisher and floor spacer, comfortable pushing the ball in transition and making passing reads. On defense, he’s an elite rim protector who can handle switches. Some of the stat lines he has posted are just silly. He put up 21 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and three steals against San Francisco on Feb. 24, and 20 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and five blocks against BYU on Feb. 5. Holmgren impacts every aspect of the game.

General manager Troy Weaver, per sources, was a big fan of Cleveland Cavaliers rookie big man Evan Mobley going into the 2021 draft. The Pistons, of course, went with Cade Cunningham and are happy with their decision. Holmgren may not quite be on Mobley’s tier as a prospect, but it’s not a big gap.

Despite being 7 feet, Holmgren’s size is his biggest red flag. He’s listed at 195 pounds, and his spry frame is evident when you watch him play. He’s a highly competitive player, but exceptionally skinny. My belief is Holmgren is too skilled in too many different facets to fail in the NBA, but whatever team drafts him will likely need to pair him with a bigger, bulkier big man.

2. Jabari Smith Jr., F, Auburn freshman

Averages: 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1 block, 44.3% overall, 42.5% from 3 (5.2 attempts).

The most dangerous shooter in college basketball is a 6-10 forward. Smith has established himself as one of the NCAA’s premier scorers because of his elite outside shot. His high release is virtually unblockable, and he can knock them down off the catch and off the dribble. Couple that with his fluid ball-handling and above-average athleticism, and you have the makings of a dominant offensive force. Smith is also a good defender who can stick with smaller players along the perimeter.

Smith is the youngest of the players in the mix to go first overall, as he won’t turn 19 until May 13. He’s a year younger than Holmgren, and six months younger than Banchero. Smith could have the highest ceiling of the three, but it depends on how much he’s able to round out his offensive game. Can he attack the rim with consistency? Will he improve his ball-handling enough to create his own shots? It could be the difference between him becoming a Rashard Lewis-like floor spacer or a Paul George-like do-it-all big wing.

3. Paolo Banchero, F, Duke freshman

Averages: 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1 steal, 0.9 blocks, 46.5% overall shooting, 33.3% from 3 (3.3 attempts).

Potentially the most NBA-ready player in the draft, Banchero is a bucket. His jumper is smooth from midrange. He has great footwork on drives and in the post, and he’s stronger than most wing defenders and more mobile than many bigs. His vision is pretty good, too. Standing 6-10, he’s a matchup nightmare. He has the tools to instantly become an offensive focal point as a rookie. But there are question marks concerning the rest of his game.

He is No. 3 because he lacks the two-way upside Holmgren and Smith possess. He’s a capable defender, but lacks Holmgren’s elite rim protection instincts or Smith’s versatility on that end. Banchero is also the worst shooter of the three, 10 percentage points worse than Holmgren on the same attempts per game.

4. Jaden Ivey, G, Purdue sophomore

Averages: 17.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1 steal, 46.7% overall shooting, 37.1% from 3 (4.8 attempts).

There’s a lot to appreciate about Ivey. He’s an elite athlete who imposes his will on games. Ivey thrives at getting downhill in the halfcourt and attacks in transition, but he has made significant strides as an outside shooter this season considering he only shot 25.8% as a freshman on a similar amount of attempts.

Ivey has been compared to Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant, but Ivey is not a true point guard. He doesn’t process the game as quickly, handle the ball or see the floor as well as Morant. That’s not to say Ivey doesn’t have the skill to become a star in the NBA. With NBA spacing, he’ll have cleaner lanes to the rim and his quick first step and explosive leaping ability will be even more dangerous. He can certainly become a go-to player offensively.

Standing 6-4 with a good wingspan, he has the size to play either backcourt position and the length to be a good multi-positional defender. Ivey has strides to make on both ends of the floor, but he has Anthony Edwards-like upside and belongs in the No. 1 pick conversation.

5. Keegan Murray, F, Iowa sophomore

Averages: 23.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 2 blocks, 56.6% overall shooting, 36.5% from 3 (4.5 attempts). 

Like Holmgren, Murray has been ultra-productive. He shoots and handles the ball with confidence, can score in the post and from midrange, and competes on defense. His offensive game has shades of Tobias Harris. At 6-8, he doesn’t quite have the size and length to protect the rim, but his block and steal numbers are healthy, he’s active with his hands and can stifle opposing wings one-on-one. At minimum, Murray looks like a high-level role player in the NBA.

6. Bennedict Mathurin, G/F, Arizona sophomore

Averages: 17.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 47.1% overall shooting, 37.9% from 3 (5.6 attempts).

Mathurin is a prototypical NBA wing. He’s a strong shooter who’s comfortable finishing inside when defenders run him off of the 3-point line, and can handle some secondary playmaking responsibilities. He has a high floor and is the type of player every team could use.

7. Jalen Duren, C, Memphis freshman

Averages: 12.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 62.3% shooting.

This draft is heavy in wings and bigs and light on guards. Duren is likely to be the second center off the board after Holmgren. He’s powerful and athletic, deters shots near the rim and has a developing post game. He will still be 18 years old on draft night. Duren projects as a more traditional big man, but there’s a place for his skills in today’s league.

8. Johnny Davis, G, Wisconsin sophomore

Averages: 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 44.1% overall, 32.7% from 3 (3.6 attempts).

If Davis were an above-average outside shooter, he’d probably be considered a top-five prospect. It’s a testament to his interior game that he has been one of the best scorers in college basketball this season. He’s a crafty scorer who pressures the rim and gets to the line at a high rate (6.4 free-throw attempts per game). His NBA ceiling could be an instant-offense bench scorer, similar to Jordan Clarkson or Austin Rivers.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofaRead more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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