Detroit Pistons’ Ausar Thompson brings defense and athleticism. But who will make shots?

Detroit Free Press

Now that Troy Weaver has taken his big swing in the NBA draft, we’re going to find out if it’s a whiff or a home run, if it’s genius or misguided hubris.

Of course, it will likely end up as something in between.

But we should find out pretty fast. Maybe not as fast as 0.5 seconds, but pretty fast, because No. 5 overall draft pick Ausar Thompson is thought to be that missing-piece defensive stalwart that will make everything work better.

After all, the Detroit Pistons were terrible on defense last season. Their 117.8 defensive rating ranked 27th out of 30 teams.

The only problem is the Pistons’ offense looked at the defense and said, “Hold my beer.” Their 45.4% field goal percentage was the NBA’s worst, and their 110.3 points per game was second worst. Keep in mind this is a league heavily tilted toward offense.

So Weaver went out and got an athletic wing defender who should be able, in time, to curb opponents’ top wing scorers and who knows how to cut to the basket and help space the floor so Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey can run the offense.

Except one little thing. None of them have proven they can shoot well.

I’m not a renowned basketball analyst, but I believe scoring a basket still requires shooting. So maybe coach Monty Williams’ “0.5” offensive system will come down to passing it around 47 times until the 24-second shot clock winds down and the last guy holding the ball has to shoot it, like a game of hot potato.

Look, I don’t think Thompson is a bad pick. He’s a necessity, even in the score-happy NBA. He’s a piece of the puzzle Weaver and Williams are attempting to put together. The Pistons are projected to have about $30 million in salary cap space when free agency begins next Friday, which is among the most in the league. Maybe free agency is where they find their shooting.

But let’s not, for one second, think the Pistons are trying to resurrect the identity of their past championship teams that were built on defense. Let’s not pander to wistful fans by mentioning the Bad Boys or the Goin’ to Work crew. Let’s rid ourselves of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the late 1980s and mid-2000s. If we could stop ourselves from listening to Milli Vanilli and Bell Biv DeVoe, surely we can leave the echoes of the past precisely there: the past.

Here’s the part that worries me: At Friday’s introductory news conference for Thompson and Houston guard Marcus Sasser, the 25th overall pick, Weaver doubled down on his desire to turn the Pistons into a defense-oriented team.

“It’s all I think about, it’s all I want to talk about is that defense mentality,” the general manager said. “I’ve never seen a team shoot their way to the top. It starts with defense. I’ve been saying it since I arrived and I’ll say it until my last days here, it starts and ends with defense.

“And that’s why these three gentlemen here, starting with coach Williams, they’re about defense. And we’re going to be about defense as we continue to restore the Pistons.”

But with NBA scoring on a steady rise for the past decade, culminating with a league average of 114.2 points per game this season — the highest since 1969-70 — Weaver saying he wants to be a defensive team sounds like a pilot saying his airplane starts and ends with the wheels.

Sure, planes need wheels. Sure, basketball teams need defense. But as an emphasis?

No. The Pistons must become more of an offensive team. And yes, there are ways to generate offense with movement and cutting to the basket. But that takes a heck of a lot more effort than making an outside shot.

If Thompson helps them score with cutbacks or in any roundabout way, then I’m all for it. But asking or expecting him to become a better shooter than he was in an upstart pro league for 16- to 20-year-olds is asking a lot.

So let’s not put that burden on him, because it probably won’t happen. Instead, let’s see how he fits in Williams’ system. The coach and player gave us a couple of clues Friday.

Thompson’s predraft workout with the Pistons happened to be Williams’ first day with the team. Williams was glad he didn’t miss it.

“What I liked about that particular workout,” he said, “was the young man brought energy to the gym. Like he had the coaches hyped up.”

THE OTHER SIDE: Pistons betting Ausar Thompson can do the little things, and one big one

Hype? It’s hard to quantify, but Thompson’s answer about what he can bring to the team proved sufficient evidence of why coaches might have been so excited about his workout.

“I feel like the group can get out and run,” he said. “I feel like we could push the pace and I feel like we could really lock in on defense. There’s a lot of long, long guys on the team.”

Maybe it does start with defense. Maybe Thompson and Sasser will be a big part of that effort. But it can’t end there. There has to be more and surely there will be as Weaver keeps swinging.

With any luck, he just might knock it out of the park one of these days.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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