Wojo: Youthful Pistons land ideal fit in Ellenson

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Henry Ellenson celebrates on stage after being drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons in the first round.

Auburn Hills — Picking in the middle of the draft, you don’t expect a lot. The Pistons, to their giddy surprise, got more than they expected.

On a wild night of dealing and dropping, the Pistons reaped a benefit, grabbing Henry Ellenson, a 6-11 freshman from Marquette, with the 18th pick. Stan Van Gundy didn’t try to hide his shock after landing a prospect most projected to go in the lottery (top 14). The Pistons pegged him 10th, and were so sure he’d be gone, they didn’t even bring him in for a workout.

It was appropriately strange Thursday night, but then, the NBA draft gets stranger and stranger, loaded with more projects than players. The Pistons figured they’d land a project, but they might’ve stumbled across a player.

“We loved him, he’s just a guy we didn’t think we had any chance at,” Van Gundy said. “We’re really, really happy. I don’t expect him to come in and play 20 minutes, but we do think it’s possible for him to get on the floor some.”

In the Pistons’ eyes, Ellenson is the ideal fit, a guy who averaged 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in his one college season, and can play power forward and perhaps center, behind Andre Drummond. And oh by the way, Ellenson shoots 75 percent on free throws.

If you’re a team looking for immediate help in the draft, especially in this weak class, you’re probably not very good. Ellenson is only 19, but has an all-around game that includes ball-handling and a decent shooting stroke. In Van Gundy’s system, shooting and versatility are huge, and the Pistons went for more with second-round pick Michael Gbinije, a 6-7 swingman from Syracuse.

Making the right move

It’s hard to tell why players drop or rise. Denzel Valentine rose after Derrick Rose was traded by the Bulls, who then drafted the Michigan State star at No. 14. That was well ahead of touted teammate Deyonta Davis, who plummeted all the way to the first pick of the second round, taken by the Celtics and traded to the Grizzlies. Michigan’s oft-injured Caris LeVert surprisingly went 20th to the Pacers, then ended up with the Nets after another trade. All sorts of foreign players went all over the place, sending Ellenson to the Pistons.

Crazy indeed.

“There’s no doubt it was the right move for us,” Van Gundy said. “We have a lot of wing players, but we don’t have a big power forward on our roster. So it’s a bonus the way he fits.”

Van Gundy surprised Ellenson was available

Ellenson led the Big East in rebounding, was third in scoring and wasn’t shy about shooting three-pointers, although he hit only 29 percent.

“I think Andre Drummond down low is really effective, and I play with centers,” Ellenson said. “So I think I can be a guy who adds a whole ‘nother side of versatility, being able to play in the (stretch four) spot.”

For the first time in six years, the Pistons missed the lottery (not counting 2014, when they surrendered their pick to Charlotte), and that’s progress. The downside is, you usually don’t win a talent lottery with the 18th pick. Van Gundy and his staff know it, and understand how the NBA is changing.

It used to be, you had to lose a lot to win a lot and land a top-three pick that could change the course of your franchise. But since so many youngsters and foreign prospects with random consonants started invading the draft, the focus shifted. In a way, it’s good. Lucking into a top pick no longer guarantees you a star. Just ask the 76ers, who took LSU’s Ben Simmons No. 1. Duke’s Brandon Ingram went second to the Lakers and Cal’s Jaylen Brown went third to the Celtics, and if you think any is an immediate star, you’re kidding yourself.

Another piece

Rising teams like the Pistons can’t count on gifts, like the one they got four years ago with Drummond at No. 9, although Van Gundy considered Ellenson a gift. The place to get significantly better is in free agency, and that’s where they’ll do their most important hunting. The gap between the NBA champion Cavaliers and the eighth-seeded Pistons is significant, that tight four-game playoff sweep notwithstanding.

Van Gundy likes his young starting lineup – Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris – but needs help on the bench. The Pistons will seek a free-agent upgrade at any position, and Atlanta’s Al Horford and New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson are the most commonly rumored possibilities. Realistically, they’ll be happy to get a shooting forward and a backup point guard and remain flexible to sign Drummond long-term.

“(Ellenson) may be good enough to get on the floor, but we’re in a position where he doesn’t have to,” Van Gundy said. “It’s sort of no pressure on him.”

It was sort of a no-brainer, and you might even consider it a steal, because size doesn’t need seasoning. Other parts of Ellenson’s game surely do, and he’ll need to stretch his predominantly inside game a bit farther for the Pistons’ pick-and-pop action.

Ellenson is a piece, a big piece (body-wise) although not necessarily a big piece (immediate impact-wise). That’s OK. Van Gundy wanted a workable, flexible player, a rotation candidate, and he might have gotten even more than that.