Niyo: Pistons' youth movement gets an overhaul

John Niyo
The Detroit News
New Detroit Pistons forward Thon Maker is defended by New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox during the first half Friday night.

Auburn Hills — It sounded like wishful thinking at the time, and now they’ve admitted as much.

The Pistons’ flurry of moves the trade deadline this week were largely underwhelming. “Smaller moves on the sides,” was how Ed Stefanski, the team’s front-office leader, put it Friday. And all the wheeling and dealing had as much to do with the payroll — “We need friendly contracts — we’re not real friendly right now,” Stefanski added — as it did making the playoffs.

But the moves also are acknowledgement that a big part of last summer’s sales pitch to the fan base — or what’s left of it after a decade of NBA irrelevance — was just idle chatter in the end.

As you may recall, a recurring theme from owner Tom Gores and others at Dwane Casey’s introductory news conference last summer was about player development. And specifically, as it pertained to the three first-round picks Stan Van Gundy made during his four-year tenure as both team president and head coach in Detroit: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.

“I wanted to get a head coach that would develop these guys,” Stefanski said at the time. “I think the upside for these three young guys is much better than what they’ve shown.”

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Well, here we are eight months later, and it’s obvious this was little more than a salvage operation all along. The Pistons on Thursday unloaded Johnson for Thon Maker, another former lottery pick who fell out of the rotation in Milwaukee. They’re also set to waive Ellenson, who’d played in just two NBA games all season, to make room for Wayne Ellington, a veteran shooting guard who hit the buyout market after a trade from Miami. And Ellington’s arrival probably leaves Kennard’s status in limbo as the Pistons continue to chase an elusive — or illusory, some would argue — Eastern Conference playoff berth.

After the Pistons dealt Reggie Bullock to the Lakers on Thursday, Kennard figured to see an expanded role down the stretch. Now? We’ll see.

Kids in the fall

But what’s readily apparent is this new regime was ready to move on with its prospects, or projects, or whatever you want to label this new crew of “really professional, hard-working kids” — Stefanski's words, again — that they’ve assembled around Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and, at least for now, Reggie Jackson.

Nothing wrong with that, mind you. To each their own. That’s generally how it works in professional sports.

And for what it’s worth, Stefanski still speaks highly of Kennard, the second-year guard whose name likely came up in trade discussions with Memphis regarding guard Mike Conley. The Pistons smartly balked at the Grizzlies’ asking price, as did other teams. Asked Friday about Kennard’s role going forward, the Pistons’ senior advisor said, “What I see out of Luke, I see upside. So I’m excited about that.”

Still, you hear much more excitement from the current regime about the players they’ve drafted and acquired, whether it’s the pair of rookie second-round picks in Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas — “Blake loves these guys — I mean, he thinks Bruce and Khyri are gonna be players,” Stefanski says — or the one they added from Los Angeles in the Bullock trade, Svi Mykhailiuk. (“He can flat-out shoot the basketball and we’re excited about seeing if we can develop him,” Stefanski said.)

Same goes for the lottery pick they swapped for Johnson, who ultimately was sent to New Orleans in the Nikola Mirotic as part of a three-way deal. Johnson proved himself as physical wing defender as a pro but never developed at the other end of the court. (He shot under 30 percent from 3-point range the last three seasons and his dismal 48.2 true shooting percentage this year actually was a career high.)

Role reversal

The Bucks used the 10th overall pick on Maker in the 2016 draft, and the rangy 7-foot-1 big man flashed some two-way potential his first two seasons in Milwaukee, earning a starting role down the stretch as a rookie and then providing a spark in a pair of first-round playoff losses — against Casey’s Toronto Raptors in 2017, and then again against Boston last spring.

Still, with Milwaukee adding veteran Brooks Lopez to its East-contending roster last summer, Maker’s role diminished, and it led him to ask for a trade via his agent last month. In Detroit, he hopes he has found what he was looking for, and vice versa.

“Playing time will be here,” he said. “It’ll be here for sure. I just gotta come in ready.”

There’s already some familiarity here that Maker says will help make the transition “easy” in Detroit. Two of Casey’s assistants — Sean Sweeney and Tim Grgurich — were on Jason Kidd’s staff in Milwaukee, and Sweeney in particular worked extensively with Maker the past two seasons. And it would appear there’s a fit as well, adding a lively shot-blocker who can stretch the floor by popping the occasional corner three to the Pistons' second unit, or playing on occasion alongside Griffin or Drummond, depending on the matchups.

“I’ll have a smile on my face with a guy running up and down the court with a lot of energy, blocking shots, trying to dunk the ball and playing his backside off,” Stefanski said. “That’s the kind of players we want. And I think he fits that mold.”

Whether this new mold shapes the future any better than the last, only time will tell. But it’s clearly not the same-old anymore, at least around the edges.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo