Palace of Pistons Roundtable: Remembering Detroit’s Biggest NBA Draft Blunders This Past Decade

Stanley Johnson is among the lowlights of Pistons draft history this past decade, with Detroit admitting their failure after trading him to the Pelicans last season. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

With Carmelo Anthony coming out and saying he still wants to play in The Association, bored #NBATwitter ran rampant trying to figure out where he could reasonably play. We explored that on the latest addition of the Palace of Pistons Podcast too, and begged the question if Detroit should inquire on a future Hall of Fame forward.

I mean, how great would it be to finally see Anthony sport Detroit blue and red? After not taking Melo in the 2003 NBA Draft, it would be quite interesting to add him to a playoff roster with some interesting upside (and downside, but it’s August and let’s be positive). The idea of taking Darko Milicic over Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Kaman got us thinking about some other horrible draft mistakes the Pistons have made. It also made us uncontrollably sad but that isn’t very interesting to write about.

Podcast: Carmelo to Detroit? Are Oddsmakers too Low on the Pistons?

So I asked our writers to give me some other draft blunders the Pistons have made this past decade. You will once again see some the names of some new writers here, so give a warm welcome. You’ll be hearing from them throughout the season, and be sure to give them a follow on Twitter (handle provided). Here we go:

Noah Sall (@iamnoahsall, Palace of Pistons Staff Writer

As much as I wanted to avoid the overused take that Henry Ellenson is the Pistons worst draft night blunder in the past decade, I couldn’t. Sure, there were other contenders who at least made me ponder the decision. Brandon Knight over Kemba Walker and Stanley Johnson instead of Justise Winslow and Devin Booker for example. However, in the end it wasn’t all that close. We all remember the SVG era as a time of poor draft picks, attempted floor spacing, and genuinely efficient trades. I’ll give full credit to the man, he swapped a washed Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova for Tobias Harris. That’s a steal and a half. As much as Van Gundy displayed remarkable trading chops, his best pick as Pistons GM was most likely Spencer Dinwiddie. For those of you that don’t know, Dinwiddie has been a Brooklyn Net for three seasons now. Last season he averaged 16.8 points per game and 4.6 assists. For a team as point guard hungry as the Pistons were last season that has to hurt.

Getting back to Ellenson, Van Gundy and Co. fell in love with the 6’11” stretch big out of Marquette after a strong freshman season. In 33 games for the Golden Eagles, Ellenson averaged 17 points per game and 9.7 rebounds. He won Big East Rookie of the Year and was first-team All-Big East. As we all know, Van Gundy loves floor spacers and he viewed Ellenson as the perfect piece to add to his Dwight Howard, I mean Andre Drummond blueprint. Given those merits, the Pistons front office decided to take Ellenson at pick 18 in the 2016 NBA draft. Needless to say, Ellenson struggled to make the jump to the professional level. He was routinely beaten off the dribble and out muscled in the post. After two and a half fruitless seasons in Detroit, the new front office led by Ed Stefanski decided to move on. Ellenson appeared in 17 games for the tanking New York Knicks and has now signed a two-way contract with the Brooklyn Nets.

Obviously, that track record is not ideal for a mid-first round pick. However, even more salt gets thrown into the wound when you look at the players taken after Ellenson in the 2016 draft. Immediately after the Pistons took Ellenson, the Denver Nuggets took Malik Beasley who took major strides this past season appearing in 81 games. At pick 20 the Indiana Pacers selected Caris LeVert and dealt him to the Nets with a second round pick for Thaddeus Young. LeVert has taken the NBA by storm and looks poised for a strong 19/20 season if he can stay healthy. Other notable players taken later in the first round include DeAndre Bembry to Atlanta at 21, Pascal Siakam to Toronto at 27, and Dejounte Murray to San Antonio at 29. Although it’s hard to tell if those players would have found great success in the Motor City, I think it’s fair to say they would have had a better shot than Ellenson.

Jacob Rogers (@JRogersNBA), Palace of Pistons Staff Writer

There is no question that the Pistons have missed on some guys in the NBA Draft in the past 10 years, of gave up on guys they drafted too quickly. For me, the one guy that I regret Detroit passing up the most is none other than Kemba Walker in the 2011 NBA Draft. 

Going into the 2011 Draft, the Pistons came off of a 30-52 season where their Achilles heal was the point guard position: Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum were the only ones on the roster. Detroit found themselves with the eighth pick in the draft, where they had the option of two big name college point guards: Kemba Walker from UConn and Brandon Knight from Kentucky.

The Pistons elected to go with the latter of the two. 

Knight had a solid rookie campaign, averaging 12.8 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds on 41.5 percent shooting from the floor and 38 percent from three in 66 games. For a 20 year old rookie, these are really solid numbers. Knight continued to have a good second year, having similar averages. Since, Knight has battled injuries and bounced around the league, now on his fifth NBA team recording averages of 14.5 points, four assists, and 3.2 rebounds. 

Then there’s the guy Detroit passed on, Kemba Walker. Walker put up very similar numbers to Knight’s in his rookie campaign. However, come year two his numbers rose and continued to rise as each season went on. Walker put up 17.7 points, 5.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 42 percent shooting. Walker now holds career averages of 19.8 points, 5.5 assists, and 3.8 rebounds on 42-36-84 shooting splits. 

Had Cardiac Kemba been drafted into a Pistons uniform, I don’t think Detroit would have been stuck in mediocrity and in a point guard predicament for as long as they have. 

Mike Phillion (@mikephilly_), Palace of Pistons Staff Writer

From 2010 to 2019, Detroit had eight first-round selections in the NBA Draft. Among those selections, they drafted as high as 7th (Greg Monroe in 2010). On two other occasions, in 2011 and 2015, the Pistons were given the 8th overall pick in the draft. While both number eight picks fizzled out in Piston blues, the 2011 draft stands out to me as the biggest draft regret of the last decade. 

With the 8th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons selected Brandon Knight. Here are some players who the Pistons could have drafted instead with that pick (I hope you have neosporin readily available): Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vučević, Cory Joseph, Jimmy Butler, Bojan Bogdanović, and Isaiah Thomas. 

I am deeming 2011 the biggest regret of the decade due to what some of those names would would have meant to the Pistons at the time – and maybe even still today – on a Detroit team desperate for shooting, a third star, or both. The first three names really jump out at you. Kemba Walker would still be with the team that drafted him if the Hornets had competent ownership. Klay Thompson is still with the team that drafted him. Kawhi Leonard, while he eventually would have returned to LA regardless, still won a Finals MVP on his rookie contract. Among the other five names on that list, three became All-Stars (Butler, Thomas, and Vučević), while both Joseph and Bogdanović are both effective and sought-after rotation players who may very well earn another contract in this league when their current ones are up.

The Pistons definitely could have gotten solid contributions from each of those players – either on their rookie deals, currently, or both. Combining that knowledge with the feeling that all Detroit got from Brandon Knight was pay-per-view tickets to his baptism in the Staples Center, it is hard for me to pick any year other than 2011 as the biggest Draft regret of the last decade for the Detroit Pistons. 

* not to mention, there were four (4!) other players drafted after Knight in that draft who ended up suiting for the Pistons (Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus & Markieff Morris) making the selection look even worse.

Ashley Gross (@Ash_ketchum313), Palace of Pistons Staff Writer

Brandon Knight might be one of the more subtle, yet regrettable, draft choices that the Pistons have made in the last decade. Not because he was a horrible player when he played for Detroit, but because of the immense talent that followed the selection of Knight in the 2011 NBA Draft. After the Pistons selected Knight 8th overall, six NBA All-Stars were chosen in that very same draft, five of whom were chosen in the first round. Those players were Kemba Walker (9th), Klay Thompson (11th), Kawhi Leonard (15th), Nikola Vucevic (16th), Jimmy Butler (30th), and Isaiah Thomas (60th) who was the final pick in the second round.

An extra bit of salt in the wound is that Pistons, who were clamoring for their next franchise point guard, were off the mark by just one pick. They missed their opportunity to snag future All-Star point guard Kemba Walker. Since being drafted, Walker has had a stellar professional career, being named a three-time NBA All-Star, and was named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2019. Even though Knight never became an All-Star player like Walker, or never exhibited the elite scoring prowess of Isaiah Thomas – he was still a serviceable point guard. He even made NBA All-Rookie First Team in 2012, becoming the first Pistons rookie selected since Grant Hill (1994-95 season). Knight’s failure with the team could be because he was never able to gain solid footing with the Pistons due to the lack of leadership on a then-young Detroit Pistons team.

Or maybe because the team severely underachieved while under the direction of former head coach Lawrence Frank, who was fired after two seasons. But when you think of all the players who were selected after Knight, and how many of them became future all-stars and note the fact that Knight was only with the Pistons for two seasons…it makes you wish the Pistons had done a better job at decision-making. Instead of picking the best position player available, one could argue they should’ve picked the best player available. But hey, hindsight is only 20/20. 

The Pistons not giving Spencer Dinwiddie (above) a chance is considered a regret, especially considering how he has come along with the Brooklyn Nets. (Aaron Gash/AP)

Robbie Triano (@TheTrianoKid), Palace of Pistons Staff Writer, Producer at SiriusXM

With the amount of Pistons draft choices that have not panned out, Detroit took a flier in the 2014 NBA Draft by taking Spencer Dinwiddie with the 38th pick in the second round. Although a first round talent, Dinwiddie fell to the second round due to health concerns about his knee. 

Dinwiddie did struggle to stay healthy. But when healthy, the 6-foot-6 guard from Colorado spent most of his time on the bench. In his two seasons with Detroit, Dinwiddie only played in 46 games–averaging 4.4 points and 13.3 minutes again. Once again, another useful Detroit prospect fell victim to Stan Van Gundy’s love of not playing young players. Guys like Steve Blake and John Lucas III were ahead of him in the rotation. Think about that.

In the summer of 2016, Dinwiddie was traded to the Bulls for Cameron Baristow. Baristow was released less than a month after and hasn’t played in the NBA since.

Fast forward to today–Dinwiddie has emerged for the Brooklyn Nets as one of the most dependable bench/sixth-men in the entire league. Defensively, he can cover both guard positions. Offensively, he can run both guard positions. His size, play making abilities and pure athleticism has made him so valuable to the Nets–and he’s still relatively young at 26. 

Here’s my gripe about not believing in Dinwiddie: In the past decade, the guard play for the Pistons has been absolutely atrocious. Reggie Jackson has by far been the best guard we’ve had–which is not a great sign for the rest of the guards. After that? It’s arguably Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the second best Pistons guard of the decade. We’ve had to watch players like Steve Blake, Jameer Nelson, and Jose Calderon get valuable minutes when we had one just sitting at our disposal.

I am confident enough to say that Dinwiddie is better than BOTH of those players–and we traded him for LITERALLY nothing. Just another classic move by this organization. Either we wiff on our draft choices or we let the hidden gems walk away. Dinwiddie shoud’ve, could’ve, and would’ve been a perfect piece on today’s Pistons team.

In the end, Dinwiddie is the one getting the last laugh:

Tim Forkin (@TimForkinTV), Palace of Pistons Staff Writer

Every year, it seems like the Pistons made a mistake on draft night. While some selections I believe are justified (most notably, Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell), there’s a certain decision made in recent Pistons draft history that I’ve never agreed with. 

Picking Stanley Johnson in 2015 seemed like the safe pick, a big bodied wing with defensive potential. Johnson was never too good at one thing for the Pistons, and his NBA value was shown as he was traded for Thon Maker. It was a safe pick. Almost too safe. Two players picked after him, Justise Winslow and Devin Booker, would have been much better picks in my opinion. Winslow is a similar player to Johnson, but with better playmaking ability and simply just more suited for the NBA. Booker is a solo star in Phoenix with an ultimate green light. His scoring potential was higher than Johnson and most every player in the draft. He would still be providing the Pistons with a strong scoring option on the wing. Luke Kennard is the first off ball guard for the Pistons in a long time who can be called a “scorer.” Devin Booker could’ve been that guy for a few years now.