The NBA Draft is over and it’s nearly impossible to assign grades this early, especially when many of these players are still developing and whose fates could go either way depending on team situations and their inner drive.
It is safe to say, however, that some teams improved on draft night, such as the Pistons, who won the draft lottery and went on to take unquestionably the best player in the draft in Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham.
The Pistons, with new general manager Troy Weaver, drafted a point guard last season in French prospect Killian Hayes, who endured an injury-filled, uneven rookie season. Cunningham stabilizes the Detroit backcourt and will get to work with new assistant coach Jerome Allen, who tutored the Celtics’ guards over the past few years.
The Pistons are in a complex situation because they don’t want to totally rebuild — they aren’t filling their new arena and there is little buzz surrounding the team — but trying to recycle veterans and barely squeeze into the eighth playoff spot hasn’t worked, either.
The Pistons have acquired solid young players over the past two years, bringing aboard rugged forward Isaiah Stewart and smooth shooter Saddiq Bey, both in deals shortly after the 2020 draft, as well as Hayes. And on Thursday, they selected Auburn’s JT Thor, Michigan’s Isaiah Rivers, and Iowa All-American Luka Garza with their second-round picks.
Garza is an interesting case because he was a great college player whose skills scouts think won’t translate well to the NBA. Garza lacks elite athleticism and great footwork defensively, but he should stick on the roster. Usually, winners in college find a way to make an impact at the next level. A former Michigan State forward named Draymond Green had many detractors, and he turned out to be a star for the Warriors.
Cunningham, meanwhile, is a potential generational player. The Pistons haven’t been significant since the days of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace, and they are building an impressive young core.
“Getting two All-Rookie [players last year] is huge‚” Cunningham said. “I’m excited to be able to join that young core and grow together with them. I think that’s the biggest thing. I want to hop right in and contribute to the mentality that they go into games with. They want to defend, they want to play hard, and that’s what I want to come in and provide for them, as well. I don’t want to take a step back from the mentality that the team has. The Detroit Pistons have always been about grit and working for everything that they have.
“You look back on the Bad Boys teams, that’s what made those teams great. I want to try to bring that mentality to the team. I know that they already have young guys who have that mentality, and I feel like me just adding on will only take us to the next step.”
Cunningham, who averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists last season as a freshman for Oklahoma State, does not lack confidence. He entered the season as the consensus No. 1 player in America and presumed top draft pick, and he maintained that status. He said he’s ready for the challenge of helping to resurrect the Pistons, and he said on the day that the Lakers also acquired Russell Westbrook that this past Thursday will forever be known as the day the Pistons’ reboot began.
“I think it will be Cade Cunningham’s night, that he got drafted by the Pistons, because when people look back, that will be the start of whenever the Pistons restored their franchise and brought greatness back to the city,” he said. “That’s my whole goal stepping into Detroit, to restore that city. They’ve already had championship teams. They’ve already witnessed greatness. I want to be able to bring that back to the city.”
The second overall pick never played in college. Jalen Green decided to pass on college out of high school in Fresno, Calif., join the G-League, and completed his lone season as a can’t-miss prospect. Green is a lanky 6-foot-6-inch swingman with elite athleticism who has drawn comparison to Celtics forward Jaylen Brown. Green should boost the Rockets’ rebuild along with Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood.
Green could have attended the college of his choice, but he took advantage of the NBA’s new rule that allows prospects to join the G-League and then enter the draft instead of being one-and-dones in college. It could become a mixed bag for some prospects who think they are ready for the NBA after one G-League season when they really aren’t.
Isaiah Todd, who also played in the G-League, dropped to the second round (Wizards) but remains a solid prospect.
“I enjoy every part of it, from the G-League to now,” Green said. “I learned so much, I think I grew up so much, I learned about myself, got a lot of knowledge on and off the court. No, it couldn’t have gone any better.”
Instead of being tutored in a more structured college environment, Green learned NBA offensive and defensive sets, making him perhaps more prepared than college prospects.
“Just terminologies, how to get through the highs and lows, watching film, breaking down film, footwork, a whole bunch of things,” he said. “I could keep going on with a list of how much we learned, but not even just on the court, like off the court too, lifestyle things. So, it all worked out perfectly.”
TURNING THE PAGE
Finals hurt, but Booker moved on
Suns guard Devin Booker was the first player in history to join Team USA less than a week after losing in the NBA Finals, the result of a delayed schedule that pushed the Finals into July. The Suns took a 2-0 lead over the Bucks, before losing four straight. In Game 4, the Suns had an 8-point, fourth-quarter lead before the Bucks rallied to take control of the series.
What was a bit awkward was Booker was joined in Tokyo by Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, after they celebrated the Bucks’ first title in 50 years. Booker averaged 28.2 points in the series but lamented not getting the Suns over the top after such an impressive season.
He then had to jump on a 13-hour flight, attempting to prepare his mind for the Olympic experience but flashing back to critical plays that determined the Finals.
“The opportunity we had a week ago will never go away,” he said. “Even if you get one later down the line, you’ll look back at the one you lost and think about what could have been. It’s something you have to learn from and build from and use as motivation. It’s not going to be easy to ever get there and get the opportunity again, but it’s all part of the journey.”
Booker said there’s no animosity toward Holiday or Middleton. They are now his teammates, and he’s had a chance to speak with each over the past few days.
“The memories are there, but there’s nothing personal between me and those guys,” Booker said. “We lost and that’s it. I’m man enough to accept that and move on. There’s no hate with Jrue and Khris. I’m a forward thinker and move on to the next thing. Take my L and move on. The experience was great, but we finished up on the wrong side of the stick.”
Booker said he understood the commitment required after the Finals and had no issue with joining Team USA after such a grueling series. What’s more, he was placed in the starting lineup by coach Gregg Popovich in Team USA’s win over Iran this past Wednesday.
“It was an experience [coming to Tokyo],” Booker said. “Just trying to get some sleep and adjust to the time zone out here. The last couple of nights I got some great rest, so this game felt better than the first one. The biggest adjustment is adjusting to the ball. If we would have a couple of more weeks to prepare, I think we’d be used to it. It’s honestly an honor to play for Team USA, to come out and to be able to represent this country and put on the uniform that many greats have worn before me and represented this country.”
The process of developing chemistry continues for Team USA, which dropped an 83-76 decision to a veteran France team in opener. It was the first Olympic loss for the US since 2004.
“[Holiday, Middleton, and I] watched the [Team USA] exhibition games and I realized what they were doing and what they were running,” Booker said. “We just got thrown together as a team a few weeks ago and we’re playing against competition that’s been playing against each other since they were 12 years old.”
Clippers made right adjustments
The Clippers defied odds to upset the top-seeded Jazz and reach the Western Conference finals, where they lost to the Suns. Kawhi Leonard sustained a knee injury in the series, and the Clippers pivoted, relying on Lowell native Terance Mann and Boston College standout Reggie Jackson to exorcise the demons from last year’s second-round elimination at the hands of the Nuggets.
The Clippers have some issues to address this offseason, however. Leonard, who underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL, has an opt-out clause in his contract. Meanwhile, Jackson, who played so well in the postseason, is a free agent and will demand more than the league minimum he played for this past season.
“We want them back as Clippers,” said general manager Lawrence Frank. “We respect that they have a choice to make. But we also hope to have in Kawhi’s case, a very long-term relationship with him. I know that he has a process, and right now our focus like Kawhi’s is, is on his health. He had major surgery. He tore his ACL. That’s going to require a great deal of time and we want to support him in that.
“Reggie was terrific and Reggie is such a great, great story when you think about how things changed for him in 12 months after the bubble to then come in in the different roles and then eventually starting, and then what he did in the playoffs and the run he had. It makes you really, really happy for him.”
Frank said the Clippers are also interested in re-signing Nicolas Batum, who had a strong season after being waived by the Hornets. Serge Ibaka, who spent most of the season laboring with a back injury, also has an opt-in clause. Ibaka will be 32 when next season begins, but he could give the Clippers another strong interior defender.
The chance of the Clippers beating the Suns without Leonard were remote, but they did push the series to six games. There is hope that the Clippers, if healthy, can emerge as title contenders, building off what was a strong response to the bubble debacle.
“Obviously, the goal is to win a championship. We fell short. We took a great deal of pride in watching how resilient our group was in the playoffs down 2-0, twice, coming back. Then with Kawhi’s injury, Serge’s injury, [Ivica Zubac’s] injury, to put us in a position, we’re really, really proud of the group,” Frank said. “It’s no consolation, we felt even with the injuries that we had enough. We had opportunities in that Phoenix series to advance. To see different guys step up on different nights, I thought [coach Tyronn Lue], not just in the playoffs but throughout the season, did an unbelievable job this season. And when you look at it, the condensed season, we had a condensed playoff schedule, playing every other day. And for Ty to be able to manage all the different things, who is in the lineup, who is out of the lineup, and then masterful in-game coaching throughout the playoffs.”
Lue received criticism when the Clippers fell behind, 2-0, and were trailing big in Game 3 against the Mavericks. But he was able to rally his club from two 2-0 deficits to reach the conference finals. He lived up to his word of taking the Clippers to the next phase.
“There are very few coaches who I say have the courage and smarts to make some of the different moves he made to win that [clinching game against Utah],” Frank said. “We identified different things going into the year in regards to chemistry and guys fitting together and guys pulling for each other, not being a front-running group, responding to adversity, and adapting throughout different circumstances, and I felt our guys really responded well. So, I give our players, Ty, and the coaching staff credit, despite us not reaching our goals, I thought there were some real silver linings throughout the season.”
The NBA announced Thursday prior to the draft that it will release an all-time team of 75 players, celebrating the league’s 75th anniversary. This is almost certain to cause controversy because there are more than 25 players who will be candidates to be added to the NBA’s 50 greatest players, which were announced during All-Star Weekend in 1997 in Cleveland. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, Reggie Miller, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Dwight Howard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are players from the last 25 years who are locks or near locks for the team. Current and former players, media, coaches, GMs, and team executives will vote on the team, which will be announced in October. It will be interesting to see if there are any omissions from the original 50 … The Pacers took Chris Duarte with the 13th pick overall, making him the oldest player taken in the first round since 2005. Duarte was a smooth shooter and prolific scorer at Oregon, and his age (24) was his only negative. He told teams that if they were interested in winning now, they should draft him, and the Pacers are definitely thinking now. Some of the same age issues surrounded former Virginia standout Malcolm Brogdon, and he eventually became a starter and productive player for the Bucks and Pacers … Evan Fournier will be a free agent on Monday, and he is showing teams, including the Celtics, that he can be a consistent scorer. He burned Team USA for 28 points in France’s 83-76 win in the Olympics, and he followed that with 21 points in a win over the Czech Republic. International basketball is a different style than the NBA, but there are several players in Tokyo looking to boost their free agent stock, turning Olympic success into an NBA contract. One player NBA teams are scouting is swingman Simone Fontecchio, who averaged 21 points in Italy’s first two games. He is signed with Baskonia of the Spanish League but could be available to NBA teams next summer.