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Get Used to Hearing Christian Wood’s Name

The NBA’s unlikeliest star is putting up monster numbers for the Pistons and could end up being this summer’s most coveted free agent. So where did he come from?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Since the days of Linsanity, the NBA hasn’t seen a more unlikely breakout than Christian Wood. The rise of the Pistons big man over the past month is one of the league’s best Cinderella stories in a long time.

Wood has looked like a star in the 12 games since Detroit moved him into the starting lineup. The highs include a career-best 30 points and 11 rebounds against the Jazz and 29 points on 16 shots against the Thunder. Even the lows have been pretty good. Wood has been incredibly consistent, scoring at least 20 points eight times and scoring less than 17 only once. He has grabbed at least eight rebounds in every game.

It all adds up to an eye-popping stat line: 22.0 points on 54.0 percent shooting overall, including 37.3 percent from 3, 10.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 0.7 steals.

What he’s doing should not be possible. Wood, like Jeremy Lin, came into the league as an undrafted free agent. But Lin was only on his second NBA team when he became an unlikely folk hero. Wood, at 24, is on his fifth in four seasons. He has bounced around the league for so long that he was part of the original Process in Philadelphia. From there, he had stops in Charlotte, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. Nothing has ever been handed to him. Wood had to win a training camp battle in Detroit with Joe Johnson, who was fresh off winning MVP of the Big 3, just to make the roster this season.

It’s hard not to imagine what might have happened had the Pelicans kept Wood after his strong finish to last season, the first sign of something more, and been able to pair him with Zion Williamson. But going to the Pistons was the best thing that could have happened to Wood. They were the first team to really give him a chance to play. Wood has played more than twice as many minutes for Detroit this season (1,286) as he did for his first four teams combined (503). His recent explosion hasn’t come completely out of nowhere. He was one of the most productive reserves in the league over the first half of the season.

Nor is Wood a case of a player putting up empty stats on a bad team. Detroit has been much better with Wood on the floor, whether he was a starter or a reserve. Look at the team’s splits before the Andre Drummond trade (when Wood was averaging 18.0 minutes per game) and after (33.8 minutes):

Christian Wood’s Impact

Christian Wood Net rating with him Net rating without him
Christian Wood Net rating with him Net rating without him
Pre Trade plus-3.7 minus-6.2
Post Trade minus-1.2 minus-26.0

Wood has been the only thing keeping the Pistons afloat. Injuries to Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard kept Detroit from making its usual push for the no. 8 seed (the Pistons won between 37 and 44 games in each of the past four seasons), so the front office pressed the reset button on the entire franchise at the deadline. There isn’t much talent left on the roster after they traded Drummond for spare parts and then bought out Jackson and Markieff Morris. Even Derrick Rose, their lone remaining proven scorer, has been in and out of the lineup.

All the turnover has kept Wood from finding a steady role. He hasn’t been in a lineup that’s played more than 75 minutes this season. But he always finds a way to impact the game, no matter who he’s playing with.

It makes sense when you break down his game. There is nothing fluky about his numbers. Wood is a legitimate unicorn with a freakish combination of size (6-foot-10 and 214 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan), skill, and athleticism.

He has range out to the 3-point line and possesses a soft touch. He’s shooting 37.5 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game and 75.2 percent from the free throw line this season. Word has already spread about his jumper. Defenses aren’t leaving him open on the perimeter anymore. Wood has a quick release and he’s so long that defenders have to stay attached to him to even bother his shot:

He has them at his mercy at that point. Wood can put the ball on the floor, get to the basket in one or two steps, and then finish over the top of anyone. Look at what he did to Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams in a game against the Thunder last week:

The ability to finish inside allows him to be productive even on nights when his jumper isn’t falling. Wood is the rare stretch 4 who doubles as a rim-running 5. He’s in the 85th percentile of players leaguewide on spot-up attempts this season and in the 95th percentile among roll men.

The other unique thing about Wood is that his versatility extends to the other end of the floor. He’s holding opposing players to just 54.2 percent shooting at the rim, a respectable number which puts him right ahead of Drummond. But what makes him truly special is his ability to guard on the perimeter. There aren’t many players his size who can stay in front of players like Chris Paul, De’Aaron Fox, and CJ McCollum on switches:

Wood has proved he can be successful in almost any role. He can stretch the floor as a power forward and defend smaller players on the perimeter while also being able to play as a center in small-ball lineups.

So, how exactly did this happen? How did a player as talented as Wood get overlooked and turned into a career journeyman? The people that I’ve talked to around the league point to a couple of factors.

It started with his decision to go pro after two seasons at UNLV. He was a skinny 20-year-old with a shaky jumper at that point. He didn’t make a lot of 3s in college (26.1 percent on 2.2 attempts per game) and wasn’t strong enough to play inside at the next level. There was no obvious role for him. His talent got him on a couple of NBA rosters, but only as a theoretically useful player who couldn’t actually help a team.

There is a natural developmental process for big men with long frames in their early 20s. It takes time for them to put on weight. Look at the way Brandon Ingram and Giannis Antetokounmpo have gotten stronger over the past few years. The difference for Wood is that he was an undrafted free agent without a guaranteed contract, so teams weren’t as willing to wait on him to physically mature. He kept ending up on the wrong side of a numbers crunch at the end of the roster.

Getting stronger was a force multiplier for Wood. He has always been able to score once he gets to the right spots on the floor. Now defenders can no longer knock him off of his path. He can finish through the contact.

The other change Wood has made is learning how to play within a smaller role on offense. A player with his size who can shoot off the dribble spends most of his life scoring over overmatched defenders without needing to try much on defense. That wasn’t going to fly in the NBA, where coaches won’t give minutes to bench players who blow defensive assignments and try to do too much on offense.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Wood in Detroit. There have been times this season when Pistons coach Dwane Casey benched Wood and gave him DNP-CDs because he wasn’t executing the team’s defensive scheme correctly. Being in the right place at the right time on defense allowed him to eventually stay on the floor and show what else he could do.

Wood is trusting his teammates more on both sides of the ball. He’s not forcing things on offense. His ability to score one-on-one is still mostly theoretical—he’s in the 22nd percentile of post scorers this season and the 10th percentile in isolations. Wood is scoring by giving the ball up and trusting it will come back to him when he’s open instead of constantly hunting for his own shot.

The best part of all: Wood still has so much room to get better. He will only get stronger as he moves deeper into his 20s. And he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do as defenses adjust to him. They are now sending double-teams for the first time. The experience that comes from making those reads will help him improve even more.

Wood would also benefit from playing with an elite guard. John Collins is the only other player in the NBA who is shooting better than 60 percent from 2 and 35 percent from 3 on the same number of attempts as Wood. And there is no one like Trae Young setting Wood up. He was great in the limited opportunities that he received with Jackson (plus-11.6 in 216 minutes) this season.

The big question for Wood is what happens next. His unusual path to stardom gives him more freedom than his peers. Wood turns 25 in September and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Former first-round picks his age are all restricted free agents whose teams can match any offer they receive on the market. Wood can sign anywhere with no strings attached.

He might be the most intriguing free agent in the league. There isn’t much out there once you get past Anthony Davis, who will almost certainly re-sign with the Lakers. Most of the top unrestricted free agents are players in their 30s like Danilo Gallinari and Marcus Morris while restricted free agents such as Brandon Ingram and Bogdan Bogdanovic will likely have any offers matched.

The Pistons have a lot of cap space and will be very motivated to keep Wood. But he’s a logical target for any rebuilding team with significant cap space like the Hornets, Hawks, and Knicks. A bidding war could open up. The chance to acquire a young player with All-Star upside without giving up anything in the process doesn’t come around often.

Wood won’t be playing in obscurity for much longer. He will be a household name soon enough.