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Wojo: Pistons fall from top three, but could land a Big Ten star

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The bad news for the Pistons is, they fell out of the NBA Draft’s top three. Good news is, they won’t have to engage in the loud, rancorous debate over which super-hyped players should go one, two, or three.

With one flip of the lottery card Tuesday night, the Pistons’ focus shifted, and so will the argument. Landing at No. 5 wasn’t ideal but shouldn’t be devastating. It means they probably won’t get to choose between Gonzaga’s 7-foot, 195-pound Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s 6-10 Jabari Smith or Duke’s 6-10 Paolo Banchero, which also means they won’t have to fret about a high-stakes gamble.

Thank goodness we won’t have to waste countless hours trying to figure out if Holmgren is a shot-blocking, playmaking marvel, or a unique player stuck in a skinny body. For the record, I lean heavily toward the latter. Smith would’ve been a nice addition. So would Banchero. But GM Troy Weaver has no complaints, and after winning the top pick and Cade Cunningham, the Pistons can’t lament their luck. (They only had a 14% chance of duplicating last year’s feat, and a 40.1% chance of staying in the top three.)

In fact, the looming debate might be just as interesting, and could come down to a pair of Big Ten stars — Iowa’s Keegan Murray or Purdue’s Jaden Ivey.

“We don’t cry over spilled milk,” Weaver said with a chuckle. “We’re gonna pick No. 5, we’re gonna do our homework, we’re gonna vet it all out. So no, no disappointment where we’re picking.”

Most NBA observers see a clear delineation between the top three and the rest of the prospects. Weaver said he doesn’t agree, although to be fair, that’s the appropriate response with the Pistons out of the top three. There are parallels to last year’s draft, when the Pistons had their pick of Cunningham, Jalen Green (to Houston) and Evan Mobley (to Cleveland). Mobley finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and Cunningham was third, although I highly doubt the Pistons regret their choice. The rookie who won it, Toronto’s Scottie Barnes, was picked fourth.

After the top three this year, there’s an intriguing mix of shooters and size. Many are enamored with guard Shaedon Sharpe, who was slated to play at Kentucky but opted out. He’s an explosive athlete but a bit of a mystery. If he goes at No. 4, familiar names should pop up for the Pistons. The 6-8 Murray is an excellent defender and a sharp shooter (39.8% from 3-point range), and could be best-equipped to make a quick impact. He scored a Big Ten tournament-record 103 points in four games to lead the Hawkeyes to the title. The 6-4 Ivey is a dynamic playmaker and great athlete who gets to the basket with uncommon ease but is a streaky shooter.

This might be the rare draft where any of the top three picks could have boom-bust potential, while the next group is full of well-rounded players with perhaps less upside.

“If had to pick today, I feel comfortable we could pick somebody we’d be happy with,” Weaver said. “I didn’t see it as a big three. I think there’s tremendous players all along the board. Everybody wants to add length and size, but I think you can get in trouble when you reach for that. I mean, I think Portland, if they could draft again, would take (Michael) Jordan over (Sam) Bowie.”

That 1984 gaffe stands as one of the NBA’s all-time misguided reaches. Portland took Kentucky center Sam Bowie at No. 2, after Houston grabbed Hakeem Olajuwon first. That left Jordan for Chicago at No. 3. Yes, that’s worse than the Pistons’ blunder taking Darko Milicic No. 2 in 2003.

After the Holmgren-Smith-Banchero trio, there don’t appear to be many length-size-hype risks to tempt Weaver at No. 5. In three seasons here, he’s done a fine job collecting players for their attributes, not their fits. In his previous two drafts, he added three players that made the All-Rookie team — Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart. Dwane Casey has been able to assimilate players, but the Pistons have been much too young to contend, finishing 23-59.

Another foundational piece, along with a prime free agent, sure would kickstart things. Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson would be ideal, bringing shooting and a feisty edge. Some have linked Phoenix center Deandre Ayton to the Pistons but that’s less enticing, in my semi-humble opinion. If the Pistons draft a forward like Murray, they’d have more flexibility with Jerami Grant, who could be traded if he’s not signed to an extension before next season.

Watch the playoffs and you know what the NBA is about. Shooters and stars. Shooting stars. Detroit isn’t Miami or L.A., where stars flock to shine. The Pistons have to draft them, or dig deep to find them. Weaver knows the formula, which has evolved over the past 15 years or so.

“You gotta play defense, you gotta play together, you gotta be able to make shots,” Weaver said. “Every good team can do those three things. We’re trying to make sure we can emulate that by adding this player in the draft, and what we do in free agency.”

Playing defense and playing together, those are staples that can be coached. Making shots? That’s where elite talent comes in.

The Pistons finished 29th in the league in 3-point shooting (32.6%). Orlando was 28th and Oklahoma City was 30th. Hey, that’s how you end up at the top of the lottery, with Orlando and OKC at 1-2. The Rockets and Kings will pick just ahead of the Pistons, and you can bet they’ll be looking for similar traits.

The draft is June 23, and by then, all the players’ flaws will have been dissected and arguments raged. I like Murray at No. 5, although Ivey and Sharpe presumably will be options. The Pistons have to hope Weaver is right, that it’s not necessarily a Big Three but perhaps a Big Six. In that case, the Pistons might not get a huge name, but possibly a safer, sounder wildcard.

They know how it works as well as any team. Sometimes you get lucky and land a Cunningham. More often, you have to make your own luck and hunt a little harder.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski