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From First to Worst: Detroit Pistons’ Most Hyped Draft Flops

Jun 24, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; A general image of the podium before the Detroit Pistons 2022 NBA Draft Introductory Press Conference. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two weeks remaining until the NBA draft, the Detroit Pistons are in a familiar position: picking at number five. Over the past 25 years, the Pistons have had their fair share of hits and misses in the draft. This year’s pick would extend their longest lottery streak since 2010-2014.

The current NBA landscape is ripe with the potential impact of various draft choices. Imagine the possibilities: Players like Devin Booker, Pascal Siakam, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, Nic Claxton, Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Williams, and others could’ve been Detroit Pistons. Their absence underscores the weight of draft choices, sparking contemplation on the team’s trajectory and the potential future stars that could shape it.

It’s always a challenge to predict the future of draft prospects, and the Pistons have had their share of successes and failures in this regard. Promising talents like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson, and Isaiah Stewart offer hope for the future. Their potential to seize opportunities adds excitement and anticipation to a franchise in desperate need.

We’ll review the Pistons’ worst draft picks by position this week. Let’s look at positions and players who fell short of expectations.

From First to Worst: Detroit Pistons’ Most Hyped Draft Flops

Pistons Worst Draft Pick At Point Guard: Mateen Cleaves

Mateen Cleves, a Flint, Michigan native, was the Pistons’ 14th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. After a standout high school and college career, Cleaves aimed to bring his winning mentality to the NBA. However, his transition to the professional level was rocky. In his lone Pistons season, Cleaves averaged 5.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists across 78 games (8 starts). The Pistons traded him to the Sacramento Kings for Jon Barry and a first-round pick the following season.

Although the 2000 Draft is considered one of the weaker drafts in NBA history, selecting Cleaves remains a notable misstep by the Pistons. Players like Hedo Turkoglu, Michael Redd, Desmond Mason, Quentin Richardson, and Jamaal Magloire, all chosen after Cleaves, had far more impactful careers. In hindsight, the choice of Cleaves over these players represents a missed opportunity for the Pistons.

Pistons Worst Draft Pick At Shooting Guard: Rodney White

Rodney White, a guard/forward from the University of Charlotte, entered the 2001 NBA Draft after a stellar freshman season where he averaged 18.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, shooting 48% from the field, 34% from three-point range, and 71% from the free-throw line. His impressive performance earned him All-CUSA, CUSA All-Freshman, Rookie of the Year, and CUSA Tournament MVP honors. White chose to forgo his final three college seasons, declared for the draft, and the Pistons selected him 9th overall, with high hopes and expectations.

Like Mateen Cleaves, White struggled to adapt his game to the NBA. His lack of effort quickly put him out of favor with head coach Rick Carlisle, leading to limited playing time—just 16 games—before he was traded to the Denver Nuggets. White’s NBA career spanned only four more seasons with the Nuggets and Warriors before he moved overseas.

The 2001 Draft, featuring players like Joe Johnson, Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace, and Tony Parker, offered several opportunities for impactful selections. The Pistons’ choice of White over these future stars marked another significant missed opportunity in their draft history.

Pistons Worst Draft Pick At Small Forward: Austin Daye

Austin Daye, a highly sought-after high school player from Woodbridge High School in Irvine, California, was a five-star recruit ranked #7 among small forwards and #25 nationwide. Daye played two seasons at the University of Gonzaga, where he averaged 11.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.0 assists, shooting 47% from the field, 42% from three-point range, and 79% from the free-throw line. Opting to forgo his final two college seasons, Daye declared for the 2009 NBA Draft.

The Pistons picked Daye 15th overall, hoping his 6’11” frame and skills would mirror Tayshaun Prince’s effectiveness. Despite occasional flashes of promise, Daye struggled to fully realize his potential in Detroit, averaging 5.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists while shooting 40% from the field, 35% from three-point range, and 79% from the free-throw line. He was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in January 2013 and later had brief stints with the Hawks and Spurs, winning an NBA championship with the Spurs in 2014 before continuing his career overseas.

In hindsight, selecting Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, or Taj Gibson from the 2009 draft would have been more impactful.

Power Forward: Henry Ellenson

At Rice Lake High, Henry Ellenson excelled in multiple sports, including basketball, high jump, and discus. He won a gold medal with the U.S. team at Dubai’s 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championships. His exceptional skills didn’t go unnoticed back home, as he was honored as Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball in 2015 and received accolades as a Parade and McDonald’s All-American. With such a decorated high school career, Ellenson pursued higher education at Marquette University.

During his lone Marquette season, Ellenson averaged 17 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.5 blocks in 33.5 minutes. His stellar performance earned him the All-Big East First Team, All-Freshman Team, and Big East Freshman of the Year honors. Despite college success, Ellenson left early, declaring for the 2016 NBA draft. Picked 18th by the Pistons, Ellenson played 49 games, alternating between the Pistons and G-League’s Grand Rapids Drive. However, his tenure with the Pistons ended when he was waived in February of 2019.

In addition to the well-known talents like Pascal Siakam and Dejounte Murray, the 2016 draft also unearthed some hidden gems. Players like Malik Beasley, Caris LeVert, Ivica Zubac, and Malcolm Brogdon emerged as notable sleepers from that draft class.

Center: Darko Miličić

Darko Miličić is completing the starting lineup of disappointing Pistons draft picks. Darko started with Hemofam’s junior team at 14, transitioning to the pros before becoming the Pistons’ 2nd overall pick in 2003. The Pistons had championship aspirations bolstered by the 1997 Otis Thorpe trade, creating a formidable roster.

Despite a solid frontcourt, Darko had the chance to develop into a cornerstone during the Pistons’ Eastern Conference dominance. In 2004, he became the NBA Finals’ youngest player at 18 and 356 days old, making history. However, Darko needed help to fulfill the lofty expectations placed upon him by the organization.

During his tenure with the Pistons, Darko appeared in 96 games, averaging just 1.6 points in 5.8 minutes per game. The Pistons traded him to Orlando in 2006, and he played for several NBA teams before retiring in 2013.

The 2003 NBA Draft: renowned for Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. The Pistons also missed out on players like Kirk Hinrich, Chris Kaman, David West, and Boris Diaw.

The Last Word

The Detroit Pistons face familiar territory with the fifth overall pick as the NBA draft approaches. Reflecting on past draft decisions reveals a mix of successes and regrets, underscoring the weight of each selection. While missed opportunities linger, the current roster offers hope with promising talents. As the Pistons learn from the past, they seek draft success for a brighter future.


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