It's easy to forget, but nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook wasn't a can't-miss prospect coming out of college. He wasn't even a lottery pick, according to some evaluators. He was a point guard whose quick first step couldn't make up for the bigger holes in his game. His former agent, Arn Tellem, figured he'd be drafted somewhere in the second half of the first round.
And then the SuperSonics -- soon to be the Thunder -- drafted Westbrook fourth overall. Why?
Because Troy Weaver, who had joined the organization only a month prior as assistant GM, looked at Westbrook and saw a star.
"I can tell you first-hand that when Russell Westbrook came out of college in April, no one, no NBA executive had him in the top 20 in the draft other than Troy Weaver, who had him as a high lottery pick and thought his incredible competitiveness and athletic ability would make him one of the greats," Tellem told the Jamie and Stoney Show. "I remember his line was, 'If everyone had Russell Westbrook in the 20’s, this was a helluva draft, a historic NBA draft.'"
Five years later, a similar story played out with another Tellem client: Steven Adams.
"When he was coming out of Pitt, very few people knew him. He was from New Zealand and had played one year of college basketball and everyone thought he was crazy to come out. They thought he was a second-round pick. But not Troy Weaver," said Tellem. "Troy had him very high in the draft. He was on him before everyone and said that he was going to be a lottery pick."
"He has a tremendous eye for talent," said Tellem, who left his sports agency in 2015 to become vice chairman of the Pistons. "As we go through a rebuild, we all felt the most important skill that we needed in someone coming in was the ability to find and identify talent. I think he’s (been) one of the best talent evaluators in the NBA for many years. Look, 75 to 80 percent of our success going forward – maybe even more – is going to be in the draft. We have to get the draft right."
The current regime bears the burden of those mistakes, but not the blame. Senior advisor Ed Stefanski has slowly turned the franchise forward since his arrival in 2018, even as it slides backward in the short term. Thanks to Stefanski and his front office personnel, the Pistons have the makings of a real young core, headlined by 2019 first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya. When it comes time to supplement that core through free agency, Weaver will again be an asset.
It's easy to forget, but six-time All-Star Paul George wasn't always destined for Los Angeles. He was torn between returning home and staying put in Oklahoma City ahead of the NBA's free-agency bonanza in 2018. This was the risk the Thunder assumed when they traded for him the year prior. Weaver, now the team's vice president of basketball operations, took it upon himself to make sure George wasn't lost for nothing.
According to Tellem, Weaver "was basically living with (George) in L.A." until the Thunder convinced him to re-sign. It was a four-year deal, worth $137 million. A year later, the Thunder dealt him to the Clippers for a package that included five first-round picks and budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
"He has a great skill of recruiting players," Tellem said. "He’s a great communicator. He really played an important role with Oklahoma City when they kept Paul George."
Rest assured, Weaver wants to keep Wood in the fold.
"Troy likes Christian Wood, is a big fan of Christian Wood. He feels he’s really come on and is developing into a really good player, and certainly a player that we’d like to keep. He’s a free agent, and God knows what free agency is going to be like this year given all that’s happened and happening," said Tellem. "But Christian Wood has turned into a very good young player for us and our goal is to keep him."
If there's one question about Weaver's role with the Pistons, it's just how much the role will be his. The hierarchy of Detroit's front office has been hazy for years, dating back to the days of Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower. Owner Tom Gores describes it as progressive. Problematic works, too. It's not always clear who's in charge, only that Gores has substantial input. Is Gores willing to cede total control to Weaver? How does Stefanski fit in? And what about Tellem?
Who gets the final say here?
"The key team on an everyday basis will clearly be Troy as the GM with full GM authority, and Ed will be there helping to guide the ship. And I’ll be a resource when they need me to help out with strategy or particular issues with relationships," said Tellem. "I don’t think it’s that different than other structures around the league. Inevitably there’s a group of people that you rely on.
"I think we have some very good senior people that will help guide the ship, and clearly Troy is going to be front and center now as the GM."