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How Christian Wood saved his NBA career and turned into a star for the Pistons

Wood went undrafted. He was cut by four teams. Now he’s finally having a breakout season for Detroit.

Christian Wood’s NBA career was hanging on by a thread. He had been cut by the Philadelphia 76ers (the first time) so they could bring back Elton Brand. He was waived by the Milwaukee Bucks so they could sign Pau Gasol. The Pelicans let him go following the Anthony Davis trade when they were forced to clear roster space for so many new players and draft picks.

Wood was onto his fifth team in four years as he showed up to Detroit Pistons training camp on a partially guaranteed contract. He would battle for the 15th and final spot on the roster with Joe Johnson, the 38-year-old guard coming off an MVP run in the Big 3. Johnson was fighting to prolong his NBA career; Wood was fighting to prove he ever belonged in the first place. If Wood didn’t stick in the league this time, it was impossible to know when or if he’d get another chance.

It’s inevitable talent falls through the cracks in a league that only has room for 450 players. Wood knows this as well as anyone. A former top-100 recruit, Wood chose to play his college ball at UNLV. He would declare for the draft after a breakout sophomore year, with some outlets (including this one) projecting him as a first-round pick. Instead, Wood saw his stock plummet in pre-draft workouts, showing up out of shape (with nearly 15 percent body fat) and with questions about his ability to buy-in to what an organization wanted from him.

He sat through 60 picks of the 2015 NBA Draft without hearing his name. A photo of him processing his heartbreak became one of the defining images of draft night.

Wood always had the tools to be an NBA player — blessed with a 7’3 wingspan, bouncy athleticism, and a smooth shooting stroke. He was simply raw and unpolished in a league that doesn’t have much patience.

This has been the year that he’s finally put it all together. Yes, Wood beat out Joe Johnson for the Pistons’ final roster spot, but he’s also done so much more: at this point, he might be Detroit’s best player and greatest hope to develop a future star. That is provided the team can keep him: Wood is going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he’s likely to get paid.

Since Detroit dumped Andre Drummond at the trade deadline, Wood has been nothing short of spectacular. In his last 12 games, he’s averaging 22 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting from the field and 37.3 percent shooting from three-point range. The stretch included a new career-high of 29 points against Oklahoma City, which he happened to break again the very next game against Utah by scoring 30.

This has been another lost season for the Pistons, the emergence of Wood is a real bright spot. This is how Wood’s breakthrough season finally came to fruition.

Wood is the total package on offense for a modern big man

Wood got his first real opportunity for NBA minutes with the Pelicans at the end of last year while Anthony Davis sat out amid his trade demand. He responded by playing like ... a rough facsimile of Anthony Davis. Even though it was only an eight-game stretch at the end of the season, Wood averaged 17 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes per night. He’s carried that with him to Detroit.

Wood does not have a hole in his offensive game — he can do everything a front court player can be reasonably asked to do. Want a big man who can roll to the hoop and finish at the basket? Wood ranks in the 95th percentile as a roll man this season, grading out as “excellent” in such situations by Synergy Sports. Rudy Gobert still doesn’t know what hit him.

Want a big man who can pop out the three-point line and stretch the floor? Wood can do that, too. He currently ranks the 85th percentile on spot-ups (which also grades out as “excellent) and is hitting 37.5 percent of his threes on the season. He’s even starting to shoot off the dribble:

Want a big man who can crash the glass after missed shots and get easy points? Wood ranks in the 85th percentile on putbacks, too. Perhaps the most special part of Wood’s offensive arsenal is his ability to put the ball on the floor and create offense for himself. How many 6’10 bigs are attacking a close-out like this?

On the season, Wood is averaging 1.152 points per possessions, which ranks in the 94th percentile of the league. He hasn’t always had the minutes or opportunity to show the full extent of his talent, but when he’s on the court, there haven’t been many bigs better on the offensive end.

Wood is having a major impact on his team

Wood isn’t just putting up empty numbers — he’s thriving in every on-court and all-in-one metric there is that captures performance in relation to team success.

The Pistons have a net-rating of -3.3 as a team this year. Wood is the only full-time player with a positive individual net-rating. He’s at a +2.2 in his minutes this year.

Wood is also crushing it in just about every advanced metric this season. He ranks No. 21 in the entire league in this cumulative version of the catch-all stats, ahead of Kemba Walker, Paul George, Pascal Siakam, Devin Booker, and plenty more.

The secret to Wood’s success? He rarely misses when he shoots. He has an enormous 65.4 true shooting percentage and makes 63 percent of his two-point field goal attempts. While he isn’t known for his defense, he also isn’t terrible on that end, either.

His length, quickness and competitiveness at least gives him an opportunity to deter shots at the rim.

Wood is in for a payday in free agency

Where does Wood fit into the Pistons’ long-term plans? He should be at the forefront. Along with rookie Sekou Doumbouya, Wood could be part of a real rebuild in Detroit. He already knows what the home fans want to hear.

The Pistons will have a high lottery pick in the draft where they will ideally land a playmaking point guard (LaMelo Ball, anyone?). Can Wood play center? He’s mostly played the four this season, but that’s also Doumbouya’s best spot. Don’t forget about Blake Griffin, either, who does his best work at the four and had a tremendous season last year before injuries sidelined him for most of this season.

Wood should be looking at an eight-figure annual salary in free agency. Unfortunately for him, there aren’t many teams with that type of cap space. The Pistons do have money to spend, though, and keeping Wood should be their top priority.

Development in the NBA doesn’t happen overnight. Christian Wood is proof of that.