Detroit Pistons confident Ausar Thompson, Marcus Sasser will lead defensive transformation

Detroit Free Press

There are several ways to interpret the Detroit Pistons’ intent behind their 2023 draft class.

Perhaps the team wanted to take playmaking pressure off of its two lead ball-handlers, Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. Ausar Thompson, the No. 5 overall pick, was one of the best passing wings in the draft, while Marcus Sasser, the No. 25 overall pick, handled playmaking responsibilities during his four years at Houston.

Or perhaps the Pistons wanted strong culture fits. Thompson impressed the Pistons during his pre-draft workout and interview and comes off as thoughtful and well-spoken in interviews. Sasser’s motor and toughness endeared him to both general manager Troy Weaver and head coach Monty Williams, and they made him a priority.

Those are both true. But Troy Weaver made it very clear during Friday’s introductory news conference that he had one primary goal in mind — improving the defense.

Since his introduction as GM in 2020, Weaver has been transparent about his desire to bring the Pistons back to the Goin’ To Work and Bad Boys eras. Their past championship teams were defensive juggernauts. Recently, they’ve been anything but. Last season was their fourth straight finishing in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating.

It’s difficult to be a good defensive team while rebuilding through the draft. Weaver took two of the draft’s best perimeter defenders in Thompson and Sasser, signaling he’s ready to turn the page.

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“It’s all I think about, it’s all I want to talk about, having a defensive mentality,” he said Friday, as both draftees and head coach Monty Williams sat by his side on the podium. “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 it’s why these three gentlemen here, starting with Coach Williams and these two, they’re about defense. And we’re going to be about defense as we continue to restore the Pistons.

“You’ll hear me say it ad nauseum, you’ve heard me say it countless times. To be the Pistons, we have to defend at a high level. These two absolutely will bring that to the table every day in practice, every game, every situation. It factored heavily into them being here.”

Thompson and Sasser want to heed that call. Both players referenced their defensive capabilities several times during the 20-minute news conference. And they have the tools to be impactful from Day 1.

At 6 feet 6 with a 7-foot wingspan, Thompson should be able to defend a variety of positions. He’s a gifted athlete and showcased his lateral agility, leaping ability and timing during his two seasons with Overtime Elite, averaging 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He was productive there, and the Pistons hope he will one day be their go-to option to handle difficult assignments.

Sasser is one of the most proven players in the draft. His four years of tape at Houston show a rugged, relentless defender who embraced denying space and doing everything he could to make opposing ball-handlers uncomfortable. He drew pre-draft comparisons to Patrick Beverley, who made a name for himself as the NBA’s most committed — and annoying — defensive players.

To acquire Sasser, Weaver sent the 31st pick and two future second-round picks to the Boston Celtics in exchange for the 25th pick. The trade hadn’t yet been finalized by the NBA at the time of the press conference.

“I feel like the group can get out and run, I feel like we can push the pace and I feel like we can lock down on defense,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of long guys on the team. I see a team that’s ready to compete, willing to compete and they’re going to go out there and give it their all every night.”

“I feel like I can fit in with 6-6, 6-7 point guards who play the point guard spot and I can space the floor with my ability to shoot the ball,” Sasser added. “Like you said, just really lock in on defense and be one of the best defensive teams in the league.”

Williams has a history of fielding capable defensive teams. Weaver made sure to get him two players who play with effort and can immediately raise the team’s floor.

“Getting to know them a little bit in the draft process was cool for me, but I’m looking forward to the future with them,” Williams said. “I have no doubt they’re going to make me a better coach, make us a better team and make us all proud.”

The Pistons are excited for what the duo will offer them offensively, as well. Thompson was a monster in transition in Overtime Elite, thanks to his above-the-rim athleticism and open floor speed. A jack-of-all-trades, he averaged 16.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists. His outside shooting was an issue, but he’s otherwise a complete player.

Sasser’s best offensive skill might be his shooting. He knocked down 36.9% of his 3-pointers while averaging seven attempts beyond the arc per game for his career, with many of those attempts being difficult. He consistently knocked them down off the catch, after stepbacks and side-steps and in pull-up situations. Couple that with his tight handle, and he has the tools to be a true two-way point guard who can get his own shot.

But defense wins championships, as the adage goes. Four of the last five championship teams ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating during the regular season, and three of them were in the top five. The reigning champions, the Denver Nuggets, were the outlier, at just 15th in defensive rating in 2022-23. But they stepped up in the playoffs, finishing fourth out of 16 teams.

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Weaver noted that even the Golden State Warriors — which won four championships with arguably the two best shooters of all time in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — didn’t become a contender until they made a defensive leap. The Warriors ranked sixth in playoff defensive rating in 2022, first in 2018, second in 2017 and first in 2015. All four of their championship rosters featured some of the NBA’s top defenders, most notably Michigan State alumnus and eight-time All-Defensive team selection Draymond Green.

“I think people don’t really look into how teams are built and how they ascend,” Weaver said. “They ascend defensively. Everybody can talk about how Steph and Klay are generational shooters, but Golden State turned it around when they became a top-10 defense, top-five defense and they were plugging away. That was the change. If we’re going to restore and get this thing right like the previous great teams, it’s going to start with defense. These two guys are tailor-made for that.”

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

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