Detroit — As the NBA season winds down, many Pistons fans are focusing on the future and the top college prospects in the NCAA Tournament.
With the parity in college basketball this year, it’s been something of an enjoyable watch, but for some of the top draft targets, it’s been rough sledding. A couple of No. 1 seeds are gone, along with a couple of No. 2 seeds.
That’s made for some hand-wringing among fans about how the Pistons’ draft outlook and which players they can watch in the remainder of the tournament.
This week’s mailbag addresses some of the questions about the NCAA Tournament, the top prospects in the draft and what the roster could look like next season, when the expectations will rise.
► Question: After what we’ve seen in the tournament, do the Pistons really want the number 1 draft choice? – @kp3s0z
► Answer: Surely, there’s some sarcasm in your question, but the short answer is that you always want the No. 1 pick, no matter the quality of the prospects. Even if you decide to trade down, there’s more future capital that you can get from another team.
To your point, some of the top projected prospects have had less-than-stellar performances in the NCAA Tournament. Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga), Jabari Smith (Auburn), Shaedon Sharpe (Kentucky) and Keegan Murray (Iowa) each had an early exit from the tournament. That’s not the defining element of a prospect, but there were some concerning things from each of their losses.
Holmgren took a secondary role to Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s junior leader, and Smith seemed to be unplugged during Auburn’s unraveling. Those are just data points, but it’s also something to consider when trying to parse between the top picks.
► Q: If I the Pistons don’t get a top-4 pick, I think my brain might explode. I haven’t considered any pick beyond the top 4. Can you provide any insight on prospects that are realistic for the pistons if they fall to the 5-6 range? – @KingGeorge091
► A: With only a handful of games remaining, the Pistons look to be locked into one of the four worst records in the league. If they’re in the bottom three, the have a 14% chance of getting the No. 1 pick; if it’s fourth, that number is 12.5%. Just as important as the odds are the exact position, because they can drop at most four spots from there.
Your point about something in the No. 5 or 6 range is realistic. They were lucky enough to move up last season, but they could just as easily drop this season. Some followers are preparing for it, thinking it’s the reverse karma of last season’s luck.
Depending on how the earlier picks go, Purdue guard Jaden Ivey could be there at No. 5, but it’s doubtful that he’d go much lower than that. Murray (Iowa), Bennedict Mathurin (Arizona), Jalen Duren (Memphis) are also names to watch in that range if the Pistons fall that far.
► Q: Do you think the Pistons should develop Cade Cunningham as the dominant ball handler of the offense or put him with a more traditional point guard? – @richhmoan
► A: Cunningham will develop in both areas. He can handle the ball as much as he needs, but as we’re seeing with Cory Joseph starting alongside him, there’s better chemistry when Cunningham doesn’t have to initiate the offense and score as well.
Coach Dwane Casey likes having multiple ball-handlers on the court at once, so the long-term answer is that Cunningham will be a hybrid — paired with another scorer or ball-handler. That’s what was so enticing about taking Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick last year, that his versatility didn’t pigeonhole him into a particular position.
Cunningham is a big-time scorer, and that part of his game will develop in the coming years. He can create off the dribble or facilitate when needed, which allows for some creativity in maneuvering with the roster.
► Q: What are the chances for each player on the roster to begin next season with the Pistons? – @MWesley13
► A: Interesting question. If the Pistons are going to make a big move next season, they’re likely not going to stand pat with this roster. To make this easier, I’ll break them into tiers:
Absolutes: Cunningham, Bey, Stewart, Diallo, Livers
Likely staying: Bagley, Hayes, Jackson, Joseph (player option), Lee
Possible move: Grant, Olynyk, Garza
Likely gone: McGruder
Among the Absolutes, there aren’t really any surprises there. Diallo is on a team option for $5.2 million, and he’s more than earned that as a sparkplug for the second unit. Livers has shown enough that for his $1.6 million, he’s worth taking another year to gauge.
Bagley could be a restricted free agent, but he could be in that absolute category as well. He’s been good in his time with the Pistons, and there would have to be a pretty high offer to keep the Pistons from re-signing him. Frank Jackson is on a team option, but his $3.15 million is still a bargain as well.
There have been rumors about the Portland Trail Blazers being interested in trading for Jerami Grant, so if the package is to the Pistons’ liking, that could be a worthwhile deal. But understand that there’s no pressure for them to move Grant, especially if he likes it in Detroit, which is every indication.
If the Pistons pick a big in the draft, that could make for a crowded frontcourt and either Olynyk, on a reasonable deal of $12.8 million or Garza, on a team option for $1.6 million, could be on the move.