As we enter the month when the Pistons will learn their fate as it pertains to the 2022 NBA Draft, various scenarios remain imaginable.
Detroit shares the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick and could become the third franchise in less than 10 years to hold the coveted spot in back-to-back years. On the flip side, the furthest the Pistons can drop is to No. 7, and for a team that desperately needs another potential star to pair with one already in place in Cade Cunningham, that would be a disastrous outcome.
If Cunningham is the real deal, as he showed in waves during his rookie season, it’s vital that Detroit ends up with something worthwhile in the 2022 NBA Draft. With last year’s No. 1 pick showing that he’s on the road toward stardom, this very well could be the Pistons’ last realistic shot at landing another top selection for many years. Luck is needed to take advantage of a losing season in the Motor City, but even if luck takes its talents elsewhere, Detroit has to maximize whatever selection falls its way.
To talk about all of the possibilities, I tapped co-worker and draft expert Sam Vecenie to give his thoughts on some of the top prospects and a potential marriage in Detroit. Here, we talk about which prospect makes the most sense if the Pistons land the No. 1 pick. We also talk about Iowa’s Keegan Murray, and why he’s being overlooked as a potential top-four selection. Vecenie also talks about the top guards — Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe and Arizona’s Benedict Mathurin — and their fit next to Cunningham, while revealing his pecking order.
(Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for both length and clarity.)
Edwards: Unlike last year, it feels like this year there is a little more uncertainty as to who goes No. 1 overall. It truly feels dependent upon which team gets lucky and is gifted the top choice. If that team is the Pistons, in your eyes, which of Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero or Jabari Smith makes the most sense for Detroit?
Vecenie: Yeah, for as many conversations as we had last year about who Troy Weaver liked or didn’t like pre-lottery, we still felt very good that Cade Cunningham was going to wind up being the first selection. And had any other team gotten it, Cunningham would have been the pick with no hesitation.
This season, the race for the No. 1 pick has a number of different contextual factors. It is much more of an eye-of-the-beholder situation, where different evaluators have drastically different takes. The big factor to consider for Detroit is that they already have their young, primary creator in Cade. They don’t need to search for the No. 1 option that will stir the drink. That changes things a bit.
I’ve moved Jabari Smith up to No. 1 on my draft board. At the end of the day, I feel like he has the most tools to be an impactful playoff player. You won’t play him off the floor laterally or athletically. He’s not just a good shooter; he’s an elite shooter out of both pull-ups and spot-ups for an 18-year-old at 6-foot-10. He’s going to be a real shot creator, and he’s going to make an impact on the weak side defensively due to his size as well as on the ball due to his quickness. Having someone who is 6-foot-10 and can move his feet like Jabari is an enormous marginal advantage for a defense at the 4 when that player also has terrific offensive skill. I think he needs to improve a lot as a passer and ballhandler, but remember that he’s about a full year younger than Chet Holmgren. He’s earlier in his basketball development than these guys. It might take time, but I think where I’m at now is that I would take him at No. 1 if I was Detroit.
Holmgren is also an outstanding option, and I can see his mix of elite defense on the interior mixed with his perimeter skills offensively appealing to Weaver and the Pistons’ front office. In terms of how well-rounded his skillset is, I think Holmgren is actually the most complete player for his position in the draft class. He can shoot from the perimeter. He can pass. He can handle the ball in transition. He can defend at an elite level on the interior. I don’t think he’s a switch defender that will be incredible out on the perimeter, but I don’t think he kills you if he’s in a mismatch out on an island, either. There are really just two concerns here. First, Holmgren is not an incredible shot creator in the halfcourt. It’s going to take some time for him, because even college defenders could slow down his momentum by getting into his frame before he gets downhill. This issue is somewhat mitigated by already having Cunningham as the primary guy, but it’s a concern about his overall value proposition. The second worry is the obvious one. It’s the frame. Can Holmgren put on the size and strength to stay on the court in the biggest moments? He struggled with foul calls in the NCAA Tournament. NBA players will bully you if you can’t hold your spot. It’s enough of a concern for me that I’ve knocked Holmgren just very slightly behind Smith, but it’s essentially 1A and 1B for me. I think either pick is reasonable for Detroit if they really buy into being able to improve Chet’s frame.
If the Pistons didn’t already have Cunningham, I do think Banchero would be a more interesting option. He’s the player I think has the best chance to be a primary, No. 1 offensive option in the NBA. He’s a mismatch nightmare due to his skill level as a ballhandler and scoring prowess, as well as being one of the best passers in the draft class. If you’re still looking for that guy on your roster, I think Banchero is genuinely worth considering at No. 1 overall. But I have enough worries about Banchero’s defense that it just slightly drops him for me, especially in regard to Detroit.
Edwards: Let’s talk about Jaden Ivey. I like Ivey, but I’m not as high on him as others, including yourself, are. I’ll assume I’m missing something. Detroit very much needs to address its other guard spot alongside Cade Cunningham. Do you think a Cunningham and Ivey pairing would work? Do you believe in Ivey being a capable off-ball shooter at the next level?
Vecenie: I think what makes Ivey an interesting proposition is obviously his athleticism. I have him at No. 4, but I do have him a step below the others in large part because of what happens after he gets that separation. He’s going to get downhill with ease. He’s going to get away from his man in isolation, an essential skill during playoff basketball. I just wish he showed a bit more in terms of reliable decision-making, scoring, and defense.
Ivey misses a lot of open kick-out passes to his teammates in favor of not-great looks in the paint. He puts pressure on the rim constantly, but I think it’d really help him if a coach could get with him and help him with reading back-side help defenders and making reads off of what they’re doing. I also think it’s probably going to take some time for him to adjust to playing in NBA-style ball-screen actions because that’s just not the Purdue offense. Additionally, I’d love to see him really put in the effort on defense. I actually think he’s weirdly a bit more effective playing on floor-spacing shooters and chasing them around off-ball actions than he is at anything else on defense right now, including playing on the ball despite his awesome athleticism.
The thing with Ivey is that he has all the stuff you can’t teach, and doesn’t have a lot of the stuff that NBA coaches and front offices always believe you can teach. He’s the ultimate “I can fix him” prospect in this class. The athletic tools are elite. The upside is real because of all the downhill pressure he can put on the paint. But it’s going to take some work.
Having said that, in regard to your second question, this is the exact kind of athlete that I want next to Cunningham. The Pistons have built a core that doesn’t have a ton of explosiveness. Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Livers, if you want to put them in that group (I am a big Livers fan based off of the little sample we saw at the end of the year) – these guys aren’t wild athletes. I worry that athletic teams in the playoffs might be able to just kind of swallow a group like this up. Ivey would be something of a combo-breaker because of his ability to just get a shot out of isolation. And Cunningham has all of the feel stuff that Ivey doesn’t. You’d be taking the ball out of Cunningham’s hands more than I’d like, but the idea of Ivey’s athleticism is pretty tantalizing. I’d think long and hard about him at No. 4 if the Pistons fall there.
Edwards: Anytime I mention Keegan Murray in a story, hinting that some in Detroit really like him, Pistons fans… aren’t ecstatic. I think there’s a real possibility that if Detroit picks fourth, and the “Big 3” frontcourt guys are off the board, that Murray would be in serious consideration. We’ve talked a little bit about it, but have you heard much about Detroit’s interest in Murray? And in your opinion, would taking him at fourth be a big reach?
Vecenie: I’ve heard that the Pistons are, at the very least, interested in him. Whether that’s at No. 4, No. 5, No. 6? I can’t say for sure. I doubt the Pistons even have their board locked down yet two months from the draft. But in terms of value, I don’t think taking Murray fourth is an enormous reach. I think there’s a pretty real chance we all look back in three years and wonder how Murray wasn’t the obvious National Player of the Year in the country this season. He just posted one of the most productive seasons in college basketball history in terms of volume combined with efficiency. He averaged 24 points and nine rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3, and 75 percent from the line. Think about that: he took five 3s per game and still shot 55 percent from the field. That’s really good! He also averaged 3.2 steals plus blocks per game as an active help-side defender. There aren’t really any statistical precedents for Murray doing what he did at the high-major level on that volume of 3s.
The two guys I’ve been considering a lot when thinking about Murray are Tobias Harris and Antawn Jamison. Murray is probably a bit more athletic than Harris, though not quite the shooter. But they have similar levels of questions on defense in regard to on-ball lateral quickness and footwork. Harris has been a consistent top-50 player in the league for a while, and averaged 19/7/3 on 48/39/85 shooting from the field over the last five years. He peaked at just sub-All-Star level.
Jamison peaked a bit higher, and had a bit more athleticism. But he was a similarly elite college player and producer who loved playing in mid-post isolations while also being able to step away and shoot, while also not necessarily being the most developed passer. Both were in the 6-foot-8, 225-pound range, and loved grabbing the ball off the glass and pushing in transition. Jamison made a couple of all-star games and averaged 20 points and eight rebounds for a decade in the NBA. I don’t think Murray is quite that good – he doesn’t have quite the same intersection of explosiveness and strength – but Jamison went fourth overall in the 1998 NBA Draft.
In general, it’s just hard for me to see how Murray fails in the NBA given his shooting, handle, scoring skillset, and size. This isn’t an Obi Toppin situation where he was kind of an undersized, underskilled big who could just leap like crazy. Murray has legitimate skill-level things that will translate well to the pro level.
Edwards: Shadeon Sharpe is the man of mystery this year. Of course, he was a big name in the high school circuit, but your average fan isn’t paying attention to that. Long term, let’s say the Pistons are picking fourth and deciding between Sharpe and Ivey, which of those two guards do you feel most confident will be the better player five years from now?
Vecenie: Oh god. Flip a coin. Sharpe is such a wild card here, largely because we still don’t have enough indicators on his feel for the game, or how he plays when surrounded by other truly elite talent. What is his feel like defensively? Does he know naturally how to space the court on offense? How much of a learning curve will there be in terms of teaching him how to play? These are just things that we flat-out won’t know until after he’s drafted. That’s what is so scary about this to NBA teams. It’s not that the information has to be dug for. It’s that it’s just completely incomplete in regard to figuring out his profile.
Here’s what we do know: in terms of tools, Sharpe has every single one imaginable to be an elite NBA scoring guard. He’s 6-foot-6 with great length and all sorts of explosive athleticism. He’s a terrific pull-up shooter and he can finish inside at the rim. He can knock down shots off the catch with ease. He looks and feels like everything the NBA is looking for, and it’s why he won’t get outside of the top-10 on draft night. If he has all of the stuff mentioned in the previous paragraph — or can learn it — he’s a star. But there’s a reason he’s a “man of mystery” like you said in the question. It’s accurate! Decision-makers will be working with an incomplete deck of cards on this entire situation. And in many ways, the kinds of 1-on-0 workouts that he’ll take part in aren’t actually going to help with those questions.
Edwards: Arizona’s Benedict Mathurin is someone I also think that the Pistons are fans of. He reminds me a lot of KCP, but I think will be a far better playmaker and might even be a better shooter. Is there a world in which you could realistically talk yourself into Mathurin over Ivey or Sharpe?
Vecenie: I like the Caldwell-Pope comparison, and think it’s pretty apt in the case of Mathurin. I think he has a bit more upside than what KCP has shown on offense, but isn’t quite as tenacious on defense as Caldwell-Pope is. At the end of the day, Mathurin is a terrific athlete who shoots the heck out of the ball, and has improved pretty drastically over the last two years in regard to his feel for the game. He’s much better at making passing reads on drives, and playing an unselfish brand of basketball. To me, that is why Mathurin has more upside on offense. But I don’t see him as a future primary option on offense, either.
I probably would not take Mathurin over Ivey because I think Jaden’s upside is just way higher if it all comes together in terms of being a legitimate shot creator. But I would very strongly consider Mathurin over Sharpe depending on my team’s situation, especially given all of what I laid out above with Sharpe. I have them at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively on my board.
Edwards: Lastly, there is the narrative that in the draft you should always pick a player with more upside, even if the bust potential is higher. I subscribe to that, sort of. Picking in the top three? Sure. Selecting in the top five in a loaded class? I’m with it. However, this particular crop of talent is wonky. Hypothetically, If I’m running the Pistons – who actually have some interesting young players, the most cap space and are looking to turn a corner starting next year – and Holmgren, Smith and Banchero are off the board, I’d personally go for the player (again, in this class specifically) who I feel most confident will be a solid NBA player for a long time. I may not go after the Sharpes or Jalen Durens of the world, prospects who may have a higher ceiling but lower floor. My biggest reasoning is that Detroit has been in this position for the last decade because it’s drafted poorly. We both can name a handful of players who went in the first round who are out of the league or barely hanging on. Getting NBA players is a good thing (even if the room for stardom isn’t there)! Tell me why I’m wrong in that approach with this class.
Vecenie: Cool, now we’re getting into the deep philosophical stuff.
In the top 10, I almost always go for upside. Later on, in the 20s, I tend to value players more that will be early contributors. Everything in terms of upside vs. relative certainty regarding prospects is on a continuum, of course. But I do like getting players who I think can be helpful early, given how low the hit rate on stars is outside of the top-20. Why? Because I think getting players who can contribute on rookie-scale deals for three years is about as valuable as any asset in the NBA, even role players, given how much those kinds of players can go for on the free agency market. Having Desmond Bane at $6 million total for the next two years before restricted free agency is much more valuable than having Gary Trent for $36 million over the next two years. If you feel like your front office is good at identifying players and skills that translate in that way, it’s a significant marginal advantage. Memphis has figured it out in that way. Honestly, I think the Pistons have done a good job of identifying guys like Bey, Stewart and Livers – all of whom I thought were relatively safe prospects.
Now, let’s talk about Detroit’s specific situation. At some point, if you’re the Pistons, you need to hit on a star to pair with Cunningham. And being in Detroit, you’re not exactly a free agency destination. All due respect to Weaver being able to poach Jerami Grant, but that’s probably about as well as you’re going to do on that end.
So the best opportunity to find another star is likely going to be in the draft. And if Cade is who I think he is, I would have some significant worries about not getting to draft this high again during Cunningham’s rise, while he’s still on a rookie scale deal. Maybe you get one more shot at it again next year. But you might not. In that vein, I would go for the player that I felt like had the most upside when the Pistons pick in the lottery this year.
And not every evaluator is necessarily always going to be on the same train of thought regarding what the perceived idea of upside is. For instance, in my case, I think Keegan Murray has more upside than Jalen Duren despite being more than three years older. He’s a big, skilled wing who can shoot and create his own shot, plus has a good chance to stick on the floor in the playoffs with just slight lateral quickness improvement. Duren is younger, but he’s just more limited in terms of skillset, natural touch, and I have some worries about his footwork out in space. Just because a guy is closer to hitting his ceiling doesn’t always mean that said player’s ceiling is lower.
But yeah, for the Pistons’ situation specifically, I’d take the player I thought had the best chance to be the No. 2 guy next to Cade.
(Top photo credit of Jaden Ivey: Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)