AUBURN HILLS – For all the elation in Ed Stefanski’s eyes as he talked about a draft that produced Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown despite taking only the 42nd pick into the night, it’s probably fair to guess the Pistons aren’t penciling either one into Dwane Casey’s rotation just yet.
That’s the reality of being picked 38th and 42nd.
“They’re going to have to show they’re good enough to get into the depth play this year,” Stefanski said after giving up two future second-rounders to get Thomas, a junior, and following up with the Pistons pick four spots lower to land Brown, a sophomore.
That caveat out of the way, Thomas and Brown have the type of resumes that suggest they’ll have a chance to contribute as rookies.
It starts with their physical maturity. Thomas, a three-year starter at Creighton after a prep school year, is 22 and Brown, a two-year starter at Miami after a similar stint at prep school, will turn 22 by the time training camp starts. Thomas was born three weeks before Stanley Johnson; Brown was born two months after Luke Kennard. Henry Ellenson will be the Pistons youngest player for a third consecutive season.
Of the 60 players drafted Thursday, Brown had the most repetitions on the bench press at the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month at 17. Thomas lifted 14 times, finishing in a five-way tie for fourth. The Pistons are getting two of the strongest players in the draft.
Strength is a critical component of playing NBA-level defense. Both Thomas and Brown come to the Pistons known as tough defenders. Thomas, who leaves Creighton after his junior season, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East. Asked if Brown, at 6-foot-5, could provide minutes at small forward in a pinch, Stefanski said, “He’s strong enough. The kid is very strong.”
Being a hard-nosed defender is the best way for a rookie to push the case for playing time. Playing hard and not backing down figures in that, too. Knowing assignments and figuring out when a play has broken down and how to adjust on the fly – basketball IQ – is essential for a rookie to bend the learning curve.
Here’s Stefanski’s thumbnail assessment of his rookies: “Playmakers, good kids, good people and they play hard. These two kids play hard. I think you need guys that will go out there, be tough and leave everything out there and that’s what these two guys are. Do they have things to work on? Of course. But they are tough-minded and high basketball IQ guys.”
That pretty much threads the needle for what a rookie needs to catch his coach’s eye and earn his teammates’ trust. There’s no obvious path to playing time for Thomas and Brown with Kennard, Johnson and Reggie Bullock likely to gobble up the vast majority of minutes at the two wing spots. But – as Pistons fans know all too well – injuries happen. Over the course of an 82-game season, there’s almost always an opportunity for everyone on the roster to make his case for an expanded role.
Stefanski probably wasn’t expecting much a year ago at this time from Dillon Brooks after he was part of the Memphis front office that took Brooks 45th. Brooks wound up starting 74 games. His back story is similar to both Thomas and Brown’s – a three-year starter at Oregon after attending a Las Vegas prep school, coming to the NBA with a reputation as a solid all-around player with a high basketball IQ.
Some thought Brooks might sneak into last year’s first round, just as both Thomas and Brown were often projected to be first-rounders in the weeks leading to Thursday’s draft. Thomas wasn’t going to fall to 42 – there was a report Thursday night that said the Lakers were prepared to pick him 39th – but nobody expected Brown to do so, either.
And nobody’s expecting Thomas or Brown to wind up starting 74 games for the Pistons next season. But they came out of a draft night that started with one pick and middling expectations for its outcome with two players with the sort of backgrounds that give them a fighting chance to follow in the footsteps of the guy Stefanski’s front office took 45th a year ago.