Detroit Pistons’ season now defined by ‘Race for Wemby,’ NBA draft lottery positioning

Detroit Free Press

As of Friday, the Detroit Pistons are officially in the second half of the season. Their 121-109 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio was their 42nd game, and the game itself was a showcase of two of the NBA’s worst teams.

Both are firmly in the middle of rebuilds, so the sloppy nature of the game — which featured a combined 32 turnovers and uninspiring defense — wasn’t a surprise. Both well out of the playoff race, the Pistons and Spurs will be leading a different type of race through the back half of the season: to the bottom of the NBA standings.

Like any other season, there are several rebuilding teams jostling for prime position in this summer’s NBA draft. This year’s race could be more “competitive” than most, thanks to the two players at the top of the draft. Seven-foot-4 French prospect Victor Wembanyama is a true generational talent, and 6-2 G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson would be the first overall pick in most drafts.

The rest of the lottery features strong talent as well. Either of the Overtime Elite twin forwards, Amen or Ausar Thompson, would give Detroit needed playmaking and defense on the wing. And a host of NCAA players, including Villanova forward Cam Whitmore and Alabama forward Brandon Miller, look like surefire rotation players at minimum.

But Wembanyama is the prize that every team in the lottery will be eying. The Pistons, already 7½ games out of a spot in the play-in tournament entering Saturday, will be defined by their proximity to the top pick. At 11-31 overall, they own the worst record in the East and the second-worst winning percentage of the NBA. With Cade Cunningham out for the season, it’s tough to envision them turning things around.

Let the Tank for Wemby commence.

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Wembanyama would transform Detroit’s rebuild

Wembanyama is one of the most unique prospects in basketball history. Only 14 players have played an NBA game while standing at least 7-4, and just nine of them appeared in at least 100 games.

What separates Wembanyama from most of his predecessors is his skill with the ball in his hands. The 19-year-old, who plays for Metropolitans 92 of the LNB Pro A, moves and handles the ball like a guard. His highlights package includes crossover dribbles to the rim, stepback 3-pointers and a plethora of blocks. He’s a walking mismatch and has been compared to Ralph Sampson, Dirk Nowitzki and Rudy Gobert.

“I’ve never seen a prospect like him,” NBA draft analyst Matt Babcock told the Free Press in a recent episode of “The Pistons Pulse” podcast. “I played against LeBron (James) in high school, I’m a couple of years older than LeBron. Obviously, he was incredible. Those are the two best high school level players, obviously Victor’s not in high school, but 17-, 18-year-olds I’ve ever seen.”

The Pistons have checked many of their necessary rebuild boxes, including compiling a roster stocked with young talent. They’ve drafted four players in the lottery since 2020, including 2021 first overall pick Cunningham. They’ll be among the NBA’s leaders in cap space this summer. And they have two talented vets that they want to keep around next season — barring a no-brainer trade offer — in Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks.

Winning the 2023 lottery could be the final piece. Wembanyama, alongside Cunningham, would give the Pistons arguably the highest-upside pairing of under-22 players in the league. It wouldn’t matter that Detroit has already used two recent first-round picks on Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren, who are positioned as the team’s future frontcourt and have developed chemistry together this season. Wembanyama is too good for any team to pass on.

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The Frenchman is averaging 22.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and three blocks through 15 games this season while shooting 48.6% overall and 29.6% from 3 on 5.4 attempts. His outside shooting percentage could be better, and some around the league are concerned about his long-term durability. Players his size typically deal with injury issues, and it could be the one thing that will prevent him from hitting his ceiling.

But his upside outweighs all potential concerns. Wembanyama’s potential as a shooter and instincts as a defender would allow the Pistons to deploy him in a variety of lineups. He can play next to Duren or Stewart, and potentially both thanks to Stewart’s two-way ability. Next to Cunningham, the Pistons would have two potential superstars to carry them out of the NBA’s basement.

This is a pivotal lottery.

Even with the second pick, the Pistons would be happy. Henderson plays the same position as Cunningham, Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey, and the front office could have some tough decisions to make if they face the chance to draft another point guard. But the 18-year-old, averaging 21.2 points, six assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals with the Ignite while shooting 48% overall and 47.1% from 3, would also likely be too talented for Detroit to trade that pick.

Henderson is the rare super-athletic ballhandler who is unselfish enough to be a true primary playmaker, in the mold of Ja Morant and Derrick Rose. The Pistons, on pace to win fewer than 25 games for the fifth year in a row, aren’t good enough to turn down a player of his caliber, regardless of who else is on the roster.

Pistons have head start, but race to bottom will be tough competitive

The Wemby race is a five-team competition between the Pistons, Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. As of Saturday afternoon, those five teams have winning percentages below .360; every other team in the league has a percentage of at least .410. Detroit leads the NBA in games played, but are tied for the second-fewest wins with 11. Only the Rockets (10-29) have fewer.

As we near the Feb. 9 trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors (16-23) are a candidate to blow up part of their roster and make a run at a high lottery pick, and the Oklahoma City Thunder (17-22) have marginally exceeded expectations thus far and have incentive to prepare for the lottery as well.

The lottery format allows the team with the best lottery odds to fall as low as fifth. By design, there’s nothing the Pistons can do to guarantee they’ll end up with one of Wembanyama or Henderson. The worst three teams will have a 14% chance to get the No. 1 pick and a 13.4% chance to get No. 2.

Thus, they’ll need lottery luck for the second time in three years to get the first pick. This may not make or break Detroit’s rebuild — after all, they have Cunningham, and Ivey and Duren have star potential. But Wembanyama would certainly give the Pistons the final push needed to end the “restoring” and usher in a new era of contention.

No pressure. We’re 40 games away from having a better idea of what the offseason will bring.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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