With a flawed but resilient roster, and only a few, easily identifiable ways to add players of consequence this offseason, the Detroit Pistons really, REALLY need whomever they draft this year to work out. And after the seemingly solid additions of Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas in last year’s draft, there’s reason to be optimistic that this iteration of the Pistons’ front office will be able to locate an immediate and long-term contributor with the 15th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
So why am I stuck on KZ Okpala, the 6-foot-9, 209-pound forward out of Stanford? Okpala is consistently mocked below the Pistons’ other options, described by analysts I trust as “bad,” and is still not certain that he won’t return to Stanford for another year. In an already shallow draft year, why am I after the unheralded, inefficient, unproductive kid from a school that isn’t exactly a basketball factory?
Because he’s a big (and I mean that literally) swing at a time where the Pistons could use a home run.
What I like:
First and foremost, KZ, measuring at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and 210 pounds at the combine) has the size I CRAVE for the Pistons. I personally got sick of watching the team close games with 6-foot-4 Wayne Ellington and 6-foot-5 Luke Kennard on the wings - KZ would finally, FINALLY be a wing-sized wing.
Secondly, he’s still young - he just turned 20 in April - so he’s not a finished product despite his two years in college. He also passes the test I laid out for wing free agents earlier this offseason: Taller than 6-foot-5 (6’9), shot over 35% from three (37% from three in college), with a free-throw rate above 20% (college FT rate of 47%).
That free-throw rate is not an accident, either. KZ, at his best, is exactly what this Pistons team does not have - a guy who can create his own looks at the rim in a halfcourt setting. He’s an excellent ballhandler for his size and it shows when he creates looks at the rim from perimeter:
He’s able to create and draw contact:
Not that he’ll see a lot of zone in the NBA (well, maybe he will, we saw use of the zone increase across the league as the season went on), but against zone defenses, Stanford asked him to slide to the middle and finish around/over/through guys, and he did.
He was an adequate, but not prolific, 3-point shooter, with a stroke you imagine teams will have a tough time contesting:
And finally, although he is not a good defender right now, he uses his size and length on the perimeter.
You can’t teach size, but you CAN teach a guy with his measurables how to be an effective team defender. But the mention of his his defense does start to get us into the negatives.
What I don’t like:
At this point in his career, his defense is more theoretical than real. He only averaged .5 blocks and one steal a game. You catch him getting stuck on screens, and ball-watching. He closes out sloppily, which is a problem - much like Dwane Casey and his defensive philosophy, Stanford’s coach had the team sell out to limit 3-point attempts. All those traits coalesce into to a guy who I firmly believe is capable of being an adequate team defender, but won’t be one when he steps onto an NBA court for the first time.
Next, although he’s able to create contact, he is often unable to turn that into a benefit because of his shot. He shoots a very flat shot that he rebuilt this past season, and it shows up in the numbers. KZ only shot 67% from the free-throw line, and shot a good percentage from three overall (37%) but on low volume (sub-25% 3PA rate).
On KZ's shot: He gets great rotation and easy legs in it, which are both good signs. But on free throws he loads under his chin, and on 3s it's still very central and a little low. Will lead to variance in the shot. Loads his wrist late, which leads pretty directly to the issue. https://t.co/6Mb0eOphqD— Halbridious (@Halbridious) May 17, 2019
He doesn’t trust the reworked shot off the dribble, either - you rarely see him take pull-up jumpers with the fluidity of a Jayson Tatum. Sometimes his shot looks good, and sometimes it decidedly does NOT:
Although he can get his own shot at the rim, he’s far from a playmaker on the wing at this point in his career; on film, you see him make basic reads and not much else. He had more turnovers than assists in both his seasons at Stanford - definitely sub-optimal for a guy who sported a usage rate of 27% his sophomore year.
Lastly, KZ started the year strong, but fell apart at the end. In his final 10 games, he put up a “yikes” slashline of 43/23/63, including only scoring nine points (on 13 shots) in his last game, Stanford’s first-round loss in the Pac-12 conference tournament to UCLA (not an amazing team themselves). It’s fair to ask if he’s the kid who put up 22 on 13 shots in an OT thriller against Kansas in December, or the kid who put up six points on seven shots in a one point, early March loss to Washington.
So why this guy?
That’s the thing I’ve really been grappling with. Why HIM?
If you want to bet on a long-limbed athlete, why not Nassir Little? If you want to bet on a guy who “gets buckets,” (which, yes, the Pistons are sorely lacking in “bucket-gettin”) why not Romeo Langford or Kevin Porter Jr.? If you want a guy who will be an immediate, solid fit with the Blake Griffin-led Pistons, why not Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Keldon Johnson?
After a lot of deliberation, I have to say it’s the package deal of the size and skill potential (some realized, some untapped) the Pistons don’t currently have on the roster. If KZ pops, there just won’t be very many guys like him in the NBA (think, like, if Pascal Siakam was a more polished ballhandler but a less accomplished defender), and there DEFINITELY won’t be anyone like him on the Pistons. And if he doesn’t pop, there’s room in the league for a 6-foot-9 slasher who can hit the occasional spot-up three.
In a draft as shallow as this one is, I think KZ is a nice blend of risk and upside for a Pistons team in need of a talent infusion on the wing.