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The NBA’s Next Star Big Man May Be Hiding in Plain Sight on the Free Agent Market

Christian Wood was cut in China just three years ago, but he looked like a revelation last season in Detroit. What’s 12 incredible starts worth to the Pistons or any other team looking to sign the 25-year-old?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Christian Wood has just about all the skills an NBA team could ask for from a player his size. The 6-foot-10 big man with a 7-foot-4 wingspan can shoot from deep, create off the dribble, and finish lobs. On defense, he can block shots or switch onto the perimeter. Wood, who turned 25 in September, excelled in over 50 games off the bench in a breakout season with the Detroit Pistons and exploded following the Andre Drummond trade, averaging 21.9 points and 9.4 rebounds in 12 games as a starter. Given his age and production, he heads into the offseason as one of the most fascinating unrestricted free agents in recent memory. He’s going to get paid millions soon, but it took a long time—and a hard fall at the start of his pro career—to reach this point.

Wood went undrafted in 2015, struggled his first two years, and then signed with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Fujian Sturgeons in 2017 because NBA opportunities were dwindling. Before he even played a game in China, he got cut. “I was stuck. I was lost. I didn’t even think I was gonna get a job,” Wood told me last month. But it was the kick he needed to start locking in on defense, making smart decisions, and playing within the flow of the offense. First he did it in the G League, and then in the NBA. “Once I got cut from China, that’s when everything clicked for me,” Wood said. “That’s when I knew I had to turn the tables, show up every night, and be a whole different type of player than anybody said I was.”

Scouts and executives said he was immature, inconsistent, and undisciplined following his two college seasons at UNLV. They weren’t wrong. For all the positive traits he had, Wood took a lot of bad shots on offense and often let his scoring production dictate his defensive energy. He showed enough flashes to warrant a first-round projection in the 2015 draft, but he did nothing to change the negative perception following disastrous predraft workouts and meetings. One executive from a team drafting late in the first round that year told me Wood had one of the worst workouts he can remember, showing up late and struggling through the drills. “We wondered if he cared at all,” the executive told me this month. Teams that had previously considered him in the first round, such as the Grizzlies and Lakers, opted for other prospects. The second round came and went, and Wood never heard his name called.

“That was one of the roughest nights of my life,” Wood said. But it wasn’t rock bottom. He did little to help his case during a summer league stint with the Rockets or with chances in the NBA and G League for the Sixers and Hornets. Then came the one brutal month in China that forced Wood to take a long, hard look at the choices he’d made. But it’s since been a steady ascension.

Wood dominated the G League with the Sixers in 2017-18 and the Bucks in 2018-19, graduating past that level by routinely logging games with over 30 points and 10 rebounds. While in Milwaukee, he spent time around Giannis Antetokounmpo and saw how diligently he worked, focusing primarily on basketball and family. “Christian just wants to be like me,” Giannis joked in 2018 after Wood scored 11 points in a game. “You know how kids grow up and say they want to be like Mike? He wants to be like Giannis.”

Maturation happens on different timelines for everyone, but no matter how much a person changes, it can be hard to shake a bad reputation. While Wood was playing like the Anthony Davis of the G League, the Bucks were feeding chances to their former first-round picks, D.J. Wilson and Thon Maker. Wood played only 62 minutes for Milwaukee until the Bucks waived him to make space for Tim Frazier following a Malcolm Brogdon injury. Giannis tweeted this one day prior:

The Pelicans, in need of a big man after AD requested a trade, claimed Wood for the final weeks of the season. Wood played eight games, scored over 20 in three of them, and for the first time began to consistently resemble a player who would stick on a team. The Pelicans waived Wood, which is unfortunate in hindsight since his versatility would have made for a great frontcourt fit next to Zion Williamson.

Detroit claimed Wood, and after a training camp battle, he beat out Joe Johnson for the final roster spot. What we’ve witnessed since is a player realizing his potential. Wood is a versatile big who can finish with power inside, reliably shoot 3s, score off the dribble, rebound, and switch screens defensively. He could be the NBA’s hidden gem.

Over 62 games last season with the Pistons, Wood shot 80 percent on shots taken when rolling to the rim out of the pick-and-roll, which Synergy Sports ranks as one of the league’s best marks. “My mentality is to dunk everything around the rim,” Wood said. That much is clear. But if he’s not punishing the rim, he can also score with touch by finishing fluidly using his off hand.

Wood also shot 38.6 percent from 3, making him one of the few players to exceed 70 percent on rolls and 33 percent on 3s while attempting them both at a high volume. Some of the others were Davis, Brandon Clarke, and Maxi Kleber. Davis had LeBron James passing him the ball, Kleber had Luka Doncic, and Clarke had Ja Morant. Meanwhile, Wood was assisted most often by Derrick Rose, Bruce Brown, and Langston Galloway.

An elite playmaker could raise Wood’s profile even more by generating open chances, but the more important question that some executives are wondering is how real Wood’s shooting success actually is. Wood hit 40.4 percent of his 114 catch-and-shoot 3s with the Pistons, but before his season in the NBA and G League, he hit only 28.9 percent of 349 total attempts. Wood shoots an effortless ball, and his mechanics were more consistent last season than they were in the past, but there’s a chance it was an outlier season and his percentages fall.

Still, Wood’s shot-creation skills could separate him from high-end role players such as Clarke and Kleber, both of whom are heavily reliant on others to score.

Wood can decisively attack closeouts or pump-fake defenders out of their shoes, and then drive with purpose. He can also hit shots off the bounce.

Wood shot only 33.3 percent on pull-up jumpers, but that’s a passable number for a big considering the degree of difficulty of the shots, and it’s consistent with his past percentages. Wood’s ability off the dribble made him both an intoxicating and nauseating prospect at UNLV. The problem then was that he took far too many shots early in the shot clock; at times it seemed like he had an allergy for passing the ball. Thankfully, that’s mostly all out of his system. These days, he plays within the flow of the offense.

Wood still needs to improve as a passer, a critique that he himself agrees with. “I need to do a better job at making my teammates around me better and try to be that playmaker that I can be,” Wood said. He added that passing out of the short roll is one key focus of his training this offseason, since it’s a pass bigs need to make in virtually any NBA offense. Wood has made progress facilitating from the post, and he’s gotten significantly better at executing simple plays like screens and handoffs. He says that past track record gives him confidence in adding more to his game, and he’s been using scrimmages this offseason to experiment.

“I played a couple games with Klay Thompson, and he makes it so much easier for a passer and [to] play my role as a stretch 5. So it definitely helped a lot,” Wood said. He has been training at Rico Hines’s gym in Crenshaw, California. Many players have come through, including Thompson and Kevin Durant; Wood sure can’t train with players that good in Detroit.

The Pistons sure would love to have Wood back, but other teams are curious about how he might fit into their own rosters. His success this past season serves as a small sample, but his level of production as a starter in Detroit was consistent with what he did off the bench per-36 minutes with the Pistons earlier in the season, as well as with the Pelicans and Bucks during the 2018-19 season. There’s now been three consecutive years of considerable, steady improvement since he left China.

Laying the Wood, Per-36 Minutes

Season Points Rebounds Assists True Shooting Total Minutes
Season Points Rebounds Assists True Shooting Total Minutes
Starter (2019-20) 21.7 9.8 2.3 64.7% 417
Reserve (2019-20) 22.7 10.9 1.3 66.5% 908
2018-19 24.7 11.9 1.1 60.7% 251

Wood had to earn those minutes in Detroit, too. Early in the season, Pistons head coach Dwane Casey called a timeout and pulled him from the game as soon as he made a single mistake on defense. Wood said he knew if he didn’t close out or if he missed a rotation, he was done. But Wood understood playing minutes for Detroit was better than playing 40 minutes in the G League, so he began to rev his motor and lock in mentally more than he ever had before. “I’d just mess up one time and I’d be sitting on the bench for a while,” Wood said. “I was on a short leash, which I always was my whole career. But with him, it was tough love. That helped a lot.”

It took Wood 18 games to take Maker’s rotation spot, just months after Maker played ahead of him in Milwaukee’s rotation. Casey held him accountable, and Wood played the best basketball of his life. “I love Christian. He’s really growing right before our eyes,” Casey told reporters in March. “He still has [mental lapses on defense], but I love him. I push him harder than anybody because I see the potential.”

We all obsess over the upside of college and international draft prospects. But pro personnel scouting is also a vital pathway to finding overlooked talent. Wood, at just age 25, checks the boxes of a player whose skills are tailor made for the modern league. He’s shown that he can play with anyone; when sharing the court with Blake Griffin, he could roll down the lane and flush dunks; when he was on the floor with Andre Drummond, he could hit jumpers.

Some executives still worry Wood will revert to bad habits after receiving a large contract. We’ve seen it happen before with bigs over the years, like Hassan Whiteside and Mark Blount. It’s an understandable concern with so much at stake, especially when playoff basketball requires all five players to defend on a string, and Wood still has some ups and downs. Last season, the good outweighed the bad. Wood is a presence in the paint who can alter shots, and he’s comfortable moving his feet on switches against guards and wings. His awareness has improved significantly since college, but he still misses some rotations and finds himself out of position, which is why Casey had him on a short leash. But perhaps most importantly, he needs to get stronger. “He’s not a finished product yet,” Casey said during the season. “Christian’s got to get stronger. This summer, he’s got to get in the weight room and make sure he gets stronger. Not as far as bulky, but get his core strength together where he can take some bumps and hits.”

In the clip above, in the final minute of a close game, Davis plowed through Wood to get to the rim and score on the goal-tending call. In the playoffs, any team that signs Wood might need to get stops against Davis (253 pounds), Jokic (284 pounds), or Joel Embiid (280 pounds). Wood said last season the heaviest he weighed was 230 pounds, but he’s back down to 220 pounds now. Ideally, he says, he’d like to reach 240; that would go a long way in maximizing his abilities in matchups against true bigs.

“I definitely need to put on a little bit more weight, but I don’t want to be too heavy to where it takes away from my versatility,” Wood admitted. “You see what’s happening to the game now. Back-to-the-basket bigs—I don’t want to say they’re gone, but the game is moving away from them. The way the game is going, everybody is positionless. I just need to maintain a weight where I can be comfortable playing and still be strong at the same time.”

Each team with interest in signing him could have a different vision for his role—some teams may want him to remain slim so he can prioritize defending on the perimeter, others may want him to bulk up. Perhaps Casey will get another chance to get Wood in the weight room.

By trading Drummond to the Cavaliers ahead of last season’s trade deadline, the Pistons signaled their intentions to retain Wood. After receiving the news, Drummond texted Wood a photo of a man handing another man a torch with a text that read, “The torch is yours now, brother.” The front office regime in Detroit has since changed, but the team is actively seeking a new deal.

“We look forward to continuing to have talks with Christian and his representatives. He’s someone we have strong interest in,” new Pistons general manager Troy Weaver recently told reporters. “Do I have a number in my head? Yeah, I always have a number in my head, but we’ll see how that works out.” Executives around the league have differing views on Wood’s value in free agency. Some expect him to receive the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, which will be valued at $9.3 million annually—around what Grant and Kleber made last season. Others believe he could earn up to $18 million annually—Myles Turner–level money. The odds are it’ll land somewhere in the middle.

League sources expect Wood to draw interest from both young teams pushing for a playoff appearance and veteran teams with championship hopes. Why wouldn’t, say, the Suns like to pair him with Deandre Ayton? Wood can handle the perimeter responsibilities, while Ayton can take on the beefy matchups against bigs like Jokic. Or maybe the Knicks could view him as a young piece to help accelerate their rebuild? They have plenty of bigs, but nobody with Wood’s perimeter skill set—RJ Barrett sure would benefit from the spacing. Contenders could see appeal, too. Before the trade deadline, league sources said that the Celtics and Rockets inquired about dealing for Wood. No agreement was reached, but it’s worth noting those discussions as an indicator of a potential free agent pursuit.

Given the weak free-agent class and the lack of teams with significant cap space, Detroit will have competition for his services. Wood has the tools teams look for in the modern league with his offensive versatility and his clear upside on defense. Will a team be willing to gamble on him to be the piece they need to help take down Davis and the Lakers? Wood is one of the first test subjects we’ve had under this new way of thinking about bigs. But no matter where he goes, what worked with the Pistons could be a formula for success.

There’s something to be said for the strides Wood has taken in his career. The recognition of a weakness is the first step of improvement for anyone, but the biggest and hardest step is putting in the work. A younger Wood might have thought a team would conform to his talents and let him do things his own way—score at will and defend when he chooses. But his actions are indicative of a player willing to adapt to survive and thrive.

Three years ago, Wood sat on the floor of his Las Vegas apartment deliberating whether going to China was the right path for his career. He ended up not playing halfway across the planet, but it was the turning point: He realized that his actions were the only thing that would lead to change. “I want to become an All-Star and I want to win,” Wood said of his goals for the next three years. Achieving them will be up to him.

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