Is Christian Good?

Two weeks ago on the podcast, Mark, Nate, and I discussed the future for players who were having the best stretch of their career before the season stopped. In order to get more in depth than our five-minute discussion on each player would allow, I am going to be writing about a few we mentioned, starting with Christian Wood.

The UNLV big man bounced around the league his first three years, playing a total of 51 games for four different teams. To start this season, he emerged as a reliable bench big and a candidate for a bigger contract from Detroit. Once the Pistons traded Andre Drummond in February, Wood averaged 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game shooting 39.7% from three on four attempts per game. The question then became, “Will Detroit pay what it will take to keep him?”

Since basketball stopped in March, Wood’s case received more attention than most hot streaks in the dead of the regular season – there have been a few random ones. After the Bucks shipped Andrew Bogut to the Warriors in 2012, Ersan Ilyasova averaged 20 and 10 for a 13 game stretch. The parallels between Wood and Ilyasova’s situations are striking, and could be a separate article. Instead, let’s compare their skill sets. 

Like Ilysaova in 2012, Wood is a good outside shooter who can score off the dribble and punch above his weight on the boards. He is a worse defender but much better finisher and leaper than Ilyasova was. Wood could follow Ersan’s path and become an established starting 4 or even eclipse Ilyasova’s career impact, but it’s also plausible that Wood does not catch on as a starter.

A power forward who can nail threes is not as special as eight years ago and positional rebounding is not as important at the 4. Power forwards are smaller now, and perimeter defense is more vital. Due to Wood’s wavering defense, would it make more sense to ride with Marvin Williams or Danuel House Jr. as your 4? Wood can certainly do more with the basketball, but how much value will Wood’s shotmaking add on the margins if he is used primarily as a floor spacer, as most 4s are? Meanwhile, Williams and House can reliably provide a neutral impact at the 4 due to their superior defense.

To reap Wood’s full offensive value, a team will have to play him at the 5. This is where Wood can separate himself from the Ersans of the world. For as much attention as Wood got for his outside shooting, he was just as remarkable as an inside scorer. He is a vertical threat whether he is rolling to the rim or attacking a closeout. He gets more space to attack closeouts when guarded by slow-footed centers. From here he can make the simple pass or finish from a variety of angles.

When the big plays back to prevent the closeout he has ample room to fire from deep. He only needs a small pocket of space to get his shot off.

This offensive potency was not on display when he did not match up against centers. Most 4s are able to close this shooting pocket and he has a harder time beating them off the dribble. Here, Taj Gibson mirrors his every move.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the the Pistons scored 119.1 points per possession with a net rating of +3.1 when Wood played center, and 109.4 with a net rating of +2.3 when he played power forward. He impacts the game more overall at center but the bad defense becomes a worse problem. Wood looked either unable or unwilling to serve as the last line of defense in Detroit.

This was technically Reggie Jackson’s tag, but that does not matter. Wood’s job is to serve as the last line of defense no matter whose fault the basket is. It’s unclear if he has internalized that since he does not seem to understand why Thon and Reggie are pointing at him.

When guarding the ball, Wood showed he can stay in front of smaller players, but often got in his own way by keeping his hands near the ball. In the same game, he fouled Fournier because he used an arm to deter a layup when he had the length advantage. He picks up a few of these a game when going for the ball in situations he should simply trust his length.

Since Wood’s career is young it may seem like he has plenty of time to iron out these flaws, but he doesn’t. The track record for 24-year-olds morphing from bad defenders into even neutral defenders is bleak. In Detroit, these gaffes are not as critical – they are not going to make the playoffs for a few years, and they’ll gladly take lumps that come with his defense. It is more fun to try to figure out how Wood would fit on a new team that is trying to win games.

If another team looks to sign Wood, they should play him as a sixth man, not unlike how the Clippers deploy Montrezl Harrell. Harrell is not a good defender, yet the Clippers scheme seeks to offset this by optimizing his offense. To do so, the second unit needs a capable initiator – Lou Williams’ playmaking is important for Harrell to actualize his role. For this reason, Atlanta intrigues me for Wood. They have a boatload of cap space and could also seek a defensive backcourt partner for Trae, moving Huerter to a primary creation role off the bench.

In Atlanta, Wood could play most of his minutes at backup center and provide spot minutes at power forward to aid the Hawks’ depth issues. They already have money tied to a backup center, but I am not sure if Dedmon’s presence will dissuade them from getting a better option. There are not many other teams with space for the eight-figure contract Wood could yield, but he is still likely to get this type of contract given how weak the 2020 free agency class is.

While free agents like Joe Harris and Danillo Gallinari are more accomplished, Wood is the most intriguing player without a team. Not only it is unclear what his role on a good team is, we also don’t know if his hot streak will continue. If the three stops hovering around 40% and ends up around 36% is he still a positive player at center? What happens to his faceup game if slow-footed defenders simply let him fire from three? Signing Wood is risky, but his offensive ceiling is undeniable.

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