Saturday, June 27, 2015

Let's Wait and See

The Pistons ended up with the player most people thought they would when they grabbed Stanley Johnson with the 8th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.  The surprise came as they passed on Justise Winslow, who was available after the Kings took a flyer on Willie Cauley-Stein with the 6th pick, allowing the rest of the teams in the top ten a chance to grab guys who were higher on their boards.  The selection has drawn mixed reviews from fans and media alike, with the main point of contention being the availability of Winslow.  Winslow and Johnson have found themselves being compared fairly often over the last few years, as Johnson edged out Winslow in the high school recruiting rankings, and Winslow got the most recent laugh with an NCAA championship and major hype for his part in that title run.  Going into the draft, it was almost certain that Johnson wouldn't come off the board until the Pistons picked at 8, while there was talk that Winslow could go as high as 4 to the Knicks.  When New York instead opted for Kristaps Porzingis and his monumental hype, and the Magic, Kings and Nuggets also passed on Winslow, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Detroit would scoop him up.  It seemed obvious because Winslow had drawn favor from his performance in March and April, and he was ranked higher than Johnson on just about every media draft board.  Personally, I had Winslow as the 4th-best prospect, whereas Johnson was only 7th on my big board.  However, Stan Van Gundy and his front office team grabbed the guy that they had rated higher on their board, splitting the fan base down the middle with his decision.  While I wasn't pleased with passing on Winslow at the time, I don't see this as a colossal mistake.  There are reasons to believe that Johnson is right there with Winslow as a prospect, and that the separation between the two may be minimal, which is how things were seen before Duke's title run.  If they had grabbed Sam Dekker or Kelly Oubre here, we could have a talk about the front office trying to outthink the room.  Since they grabbed a player who most saw as an equal to Winslow as recently as February, it's best to take a wait-and-see approach to this pick.

I don't want to defend the Stanley Johnson pick too much, because I did have Winslow ahead of him and I wasn't pleased when I saw the selection.  However, I don't think there's some kind of major gap between the two that makes this pick indefensible.  Stan Van Gundy and his front office have drastically improved the talent on the roster from top to bottom since taking over last summer.  I think his ability to evaluate talent and value shouldn't be at question because he grabbed a guy that the media and fans didn't see as the best prospect left on the board.  While he's not infallible (the Meeks contract doesn't look ideal, and Greg Monroe getting away for nothing isn't either), this front office has done things the right way so far.  SVG deserves the benefit of the doubt until he gives us a reason not to trust him.  He and his staff were in the gym when Johnson worked out for Detroit on June 15th, and when Winslow made a surprise (to the media) visit to Detroit the next day.  They were the ones who talked to each player in the evaluation process.  If Stan Van Gundy really believes Stanley Johnson is a better long-term option than Justise Winslow, you can sell me on why.  As mentioned above, it's not like he grabbed Sam Dekker or Justin Anderson instead of Winslow.  Johnson would have gone to Miami at 10 had the Pistons not snagged him.  That the fans and the media liked Winslow more is inconsequential here, even if Winslow does end up being the better player.  You're entitled to believe that SVG screwed up royally on Thursday night, but the reality is that it's quite simply too early to know if Stan Van Gundy made a mistake by passing on Winslow and taking Johnson.

I scouted Stanley Johnson back in April after the Wildcats were eliminated from the NCAA tournament if you're interested; so there's no need to re-hash his strengths and weaknesses in this space.  What's more important here is discussing the outlook for Johnson going forward.  We'll get our first look at Johnson at 11:00 am on Independence Day, when the Pistons face up against the Orlando Magic White squad in Detroit's first Orlando Summer League game.  Orlando is fielding two teams this year, with one consisting mostly of roster players and the other being composed of longshots, according to Orlando Magic Daily.  It's hard to say just what they'll be doing for each team yet, but it's at least possible that his debut is a matchup with 5th overall pick Mario Hezonja.  Other contests throughout the five game competition will see him match up with Branden Dawson and the Clippers on the 5th, Justise Winslow and the Heat on the 6th, and a potential matchup with 23rd overall pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the Nets should Detroit and Brooklyn meet on the final day of competition.  Summer league play isn't the best indicator of what a player is going to look like once the regular season starts, but it would be encouraging to see Johnson stand out in Orlando.

Once the real action starts in October/November, I expect Johnson to come off the bench behind whatever SF that Stan Van Gundy finds in free agency.  If that SF is someone like Danny Green or Tobias Harris, who can also play SG and PF respectively, I expect that Johnson will see between 20-25 minutes per night, almost exclusively at the three.  If that signing is someone like DeMarre Carroll, who is strictly a SF, SVG may have to be more creative to get Johnson into the aforementioned minute range.  I'm fully expecting Johnson to struggle as an outside shooter from the longer line, which could limit the exposure he gets from a coach who is clearly pushing for a playoff bid this year.  If Johnson's shooting is better than expected, say, in the 34-36% range from three, he'll be a valuable backup.  If he's below that range, then he's a long-term project who you can pick your spots with.  Depending on the units he sees playing time with, Johnson should be the third or fourth offensive option.  If Stan Van Gundy is really committed to developing Johnson's offensive game, we could also see him deployed in some bench lineups that feature Johnson as the first or second option.  In a lineup with Dinwiddie, KCP, Johnson, Tolliver and Drummond, you could argue that Johnson would be the second option.  That will all likely depend on what Johnson showcases, starting in Orlando and progressing through training camp.  Good, bad or indifferent, I'm excited to see what he can do in a Pistons uniform.

The Pistons' second pick of the night on Thursday, Darrun Hilliard, was a bit of a reach in my eyes.  While I was hoping to see Hilliard in a Pistons' uniform for the Orlando Summer League, I was crossing my fingers that he would slip through the cracks and be signed as an undrafted free agent.  That the Pistons felt the need to use a pick that has opportunity cost on him signals that they either really like Hilliard, or that they were certain another team was going to grab him before the end of the draft night festivities.  That all being said, I think Hilliard is just about a lock to play the majority of the 2015-16 season with the Grand Rapids Drive in the D-League.  He had a productive four year career at Villanova, after signing with the Wildcats as an unheralded three-star recruit.  He averaged 14.3 PPG in each of his last two seasons for Villanova, helping the Wildcats to a 1-seed in his senior season.  He has enough size to play SF in the NBA and is a good enough shooter to also see time at SG.  Considering the Pistons figure to have two or three options better than him at each of those positions, it would be more beneficial to Hilliard and the Pistons if he was able to see real action in Grand Rapids.  Best-case scenario, Hilliard turns into a valuable role player who can space the floor and play defense off the bench.  Worst-case scenario, he shows he can't cut it at the D-League level and never earns a real shot with the parent club.  Much like Johnson, he'll see a lot of minutes in the Orlando Summer League, where he will most likely start at SG, assuming the likely scenario where KCP isn't on the roster.

Somewhat disappointingly, the Pistons haven't been overly active in signing undrafted free agents to their Orlando Summer League roster.  The only player they've added from this year's draft class to this point is UTEP's Julian Washburn, who figures to split time between the two forward positions.  Along with Washburn, Johnson and Hilliard, the Pistons will also feature Spencer Dinwiddie and Quincy Miller.  Adonis Thomas, a wing from the Grand Rapids Drive, is also planning on playing with the Pistons in Orlando.  Other players slated to join the roster so far are as follows:
  • Adam Kemp, C, Marist, 2014 draft entry
  • Billy Baron, PG, Canisius, 2014
  • Steven Gray, G/F, Gonzaga, 2011
That leaves the depth chart looking like this, based on my opinion:

Spencer Dinwiddie
Billy Baron
Darrun Hilliard
Steven Gray
Stanley Johnson
Adonis Thomas
Quincy Miller
Julian Washburn
Adam Kemp

We'll likely see another addition or two at the C position, with one of those figuring to be a legitimate prospect.  Mam Jaiteh, who was projected by some to be grabbed by the Pistons with the 38th pick, would be an excellent addition.  I'm sure they'll add some guys at the other positions as well.  I'll likely have a full preview of the Pistons' Orlando Summer League squad, time permitting. 

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