Detroit — It was a big swing all right, and it didn’t end there. Pistons GM Troy Weaver leapt for talent and tenacity with his first pick, and kept swinging. When it was over, the Pistons had about as tantalizing a draft haul as you could expect.
You’ve probably never seen Ausar Thompson play, unless you’re an Overtime Elite junkie. His unorthodox path to the NBA is what makes this a gamble. But his rare athletic ability, rarer bloodline and touted defense make it a worthwhile risk. Weaver promised a “big swing” with the pick at No. 5 and this qualifies, the type of high-ceiling player the Pistons are trying to collect, at precisely the wing position they craved.
The next swing wasn’t quite as sizable, but much needed. Weaver traded up from 31 (first pick of the second round) for Boston’s choice at 25, then used it on a lethal deep shooter, Houston 6-2 senior guard Marcus Sasser. The combination of athleticism and defense in the two first-round picks was impressive.
After plummeting in the lottery, Weaver responded Thursday night with a pair of leaps, and both make sense. Weaver said he fielded numerous trade offers for the No. 5 pick, but had decided a while ago that if the 6-7 Thompson was there, he’d be coming here.
“He adds to our culture,” Weaver said. “We got a great person. Tremendous worker, tremendous human being. Great athlete, on top of having a chance to be an elite defender on the perimeter.”
Thompson is quick and creative and capable of defending multiple positions. The knock is his shooting (30% on 3s) and that’s part of the risk, although there weren’t a bunch of elite shooters available. That’s why Weaver later grabbed Sasser, one of the best 3-point marksman in college basketball (38.4% last season).
The Thompson story is fascinating, and Pistons’ new coach Monty Williams will be tasked with separating fact from fable. Ausar and Amen Thompson are identical twins that present identical mysteries. Their talent is no secret and both were projected to go in the top six. Amen (considered a guard) went to Houston at No. 4 and Ausar (a small forward) immediately followed.
Players in the fledgling Overtime Elite program, as well as the G-League, are difficult to judge based on the uneven level of competition. At 20, the Thompson twins were considerably older than most opponents, adding to the difficulty in assessing them. Their team played at a rapid pace, not conducive to spot-up shooting.
So how risky is it to take players from a place with no history, virtually no coverage and scattered stats? Perhaps just as risky as ignoring them.
Obviously, it’s not scaring NBA teams, as G-Leaguer Scoot Henderson was taken by Portland at No. 3. Players from college programs — Houston’s Jarace Walker, Villanova’s Cam Whitmore, Arkansas’ Anthony Black, Central Florida’s Taylor Hendricks — might have been considered “safer,” but beware any suggestions of safety in the draft. Whitmore, widely projected to the Pistons at No. 5, reportedly raised medical concerns and fell all the way to Houston at No. 20.
Asked if Ausar was the exact player he had in mind when he talked about big, bold swings, Weaver said, “Absolutely.”
“First and foremost, we said we wanted to make sure we get out defense in order, and this guy’s athleticism really adds to our talent base,” Weaver said. “He’s a monster in the open court, and in the halfcourt he can get downhill. His shooting numbers will be better than we’ve seen, for sure. I think he has a budding offensive skillset.”
Before the Pistons could take a chance on Thompson, the Thompsons took a chance on themselves, opting for the developmental program instead of college basketball. They went to high school in Florida and headed together to Overtime Elite in Atlanta, run by people with NBA backgrounds.
The Thompsons’ identities are intertwined in physical and basketball ways. They’re considered diligent workers with high basketball IQs, and their fraternal connection is so tight, this is the first time they won’t be playing with each other.
They’re not adept deep shooters but are fierce defenders and terrific in transition. Both are 6-7, 215 pounds. Neither seems overly concerned about the shooting questions.
“How I stay on the court is with defense,” Ausar said. “Teams that win championships play defense, that’s what I’m trying to bring to Detroit. … I’ve gotten a lot better at (shooting). I’m gonna work at it, and I’m actually very confident shooting.”
As bad as the Pistons’ defense was, their offense stalled way too often. Of course part of that was Cade Cunningham’s injury absence and Jaden Ivey’s youthfulness.
Weaver envisions Thompson being used as another facilitator in Williams’ offense, drawing comparisons to wing Andre Iguodala, who played for the 76ers and won a title with Golden State.
“You want to have multiple ballhandlers so you don’t get bogged down,” Weaver said. “(Thompson) comes in physically ready, he just needs to learn the nuances. He’ll be a defender in this league at a high level pretty early.”
Thompson and Sasser fit the Pistons’ stated profile, and with Cunningham, Ivey, Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart, the athleticism and defensive depth have been bolstered. Weaver swung as promised, with reasonable, not radical, risks. After the lottery disappointment, the fear was that the swings would be misses. In fact, Weaver made solid contact, with potentially significant impact.