GM Troy Weaver banks on aggressiveness forged in AAU to rebuild Detroit Pistons

Back in the 1990s, Troy Weaver was working at a Washington, D.C., rec center while finishing his degree at local Bowie State. Weaver had played a little junior-college basketball, and in his early 20s, he was teaching the game to some kids. A few of them were invited to play in an area AAU tournament. Weaver went along to watch.

He was unimpressed with the coaching. The guys who ran the team offered him the job. Instead, he went one better, joining up with a friend to start his own program.

That team — D.C. Assault — quickly became a national powerhouse, churning out Division I talent.

At the time, AAU ball was scorned as the sport’s Wild West — a barely tolerated, much derided segment of the game.

Weaver stood out, though. So much so that a respected, veteran coach, Pittsburgh’s Ralph Willard, hired him as an assistant. He later joined Jim Boeheim’s staff at Syracuse, where he famously recruited a Baltimore kid named Carmelo Anthony and the Orange won a national title.

A clear path to a college head coach job was in front of him. However, Weaver had two goals growing up: “Help young men,” he said, “and work in the front office of a professional team, either the NBA or NFL.”

Troy Weaver, then Oklahoma City Thunder vice president and assistant general manager, holds a jersey with forward Josh Huestis.
Troy Weaver, then Oklahoma City Thunder vice president and assistant general manager, holds a jersey with forward Josh Huestis. Weaver is now in his first season as the Detroit Pistons' general manager. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

So when the Utah Jazz offered him a chance to learn the pro game as a scout, he surprised many by taking it. He was soon promoted to director of player personnel. In 2008, Oklahoma City made him an assistant general manager.

Then came June, when Weaver, who started with zero connections on perhaps the bottom rung of the basketball career ladder ascended to the top when the Detroit Pistons hired him as their general manager.

He’s believed to be the first former AAU guy to hold such a job.

“I love a good story. I love start-ups,” Pistons owner Tom Gores told Yahoo Sports. Gores, as a child, immigrated with his family from Lebanon to outside Flint, Michigan, where he worked his way into a self-made billionaire.

“The story isn’t why we hired Troy though,” Gores said. “Troy’s ability to evaluate talent was the No. 1 reason. He is concise in how he sees talent. He sees it on a micro-level. I’ve met a lot of executives who know basketball. Troy is just on a whole different level.”

The Pistons are, to say the least, in need of help. The proud franchise has won three NBA titles, but not a single playoff game in a dozen years. Last season, with a 20-46 record, it didn’t even qualify for the Orlando bubble.

Weaver prefers to be optimistic by calling the challenge a “restoring” or a “retooling,” not a “rebuilding.”

There is no blueprint to becoming an NBA general manager. Although, especially in the past, the most common route was to be either a former NBA player or coach, or the son of a former NBA player or coach. As analytics have become more prominent, the pool has widened.

Still, there is no one quite like the 52-year-old Weaver, a distinction he mostly shrugs off.

“I’m grateful and thankful for my journey,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

As might be expected of someone who took a long and unlikely route to the top, Weaver isn’t content in just easing into the job. You don’t go from a rec center to the NBA by being passive. You constantly redefine what people think of you and what they think you are capable of accomplishing.

“The biggest thing is setting a structure where everyone can be themselves inside of the system,” Weaver said. “Once people buy into it, then you really get going. You have to have a system, but people have to be individuals inside of it.”

As for being himself, aggressiveness is what got him here, and aggressiveness is what will keep him here. It’s why lowly Detroit, perhaps years from contention, was one of the most active teams this offseason.

Weaver’s first move was to let about half the roster loose, signaling a new day. Then on draft night, Weaver made three trades to turn one first-round pick into three (led by seventh overall selection Killian Hayes), plus a second-rounder and an additional few players (Josh Jackson has looked notably improved in preseason play).

Detroit Pistons rookie Killian Hayes protects the ball from New York Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. during a preseason game.
Detroit Pistons rookie Killian Hayes protects the ball from New York Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. during a preseason game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan, on Dec. 13, 2020. (Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

He moved up. He moved down. He believes he brought the potential core of a playoff team down the line.

“I wasn’t going to be cautious; that’s not who I am,” Weaver said.

This season may not yield a ton of victories (which is fine if it yields a top pick). However, young talent is in place with veteran players to guide them. Additional cap space will open in a couple of years, when the Pistons might be on a real upswing. Essentially, Weaver is building the support cast for a future star to fit around, rather than the other way.

“We were absolutely going to be aggressive, but only because we have a plan,” Weaver said. “I’m never going to be aggressive without a plan. We have a very determined plan, and hopefully in a few years, it will yield a fortune.”

Gores said what has impressed him about Weaver is that he wasn’t trying to just get draft picks, but certain players. The team owner sees a general manager who determines who can and can’t play and doesn’t worry about what conventional wisdom has to say. He just gets his guys.

“He can really size up whether someone has it or not,” Gores said. “I know he shook things up [on draft night]. But I would say it was smartly aggressive. Troy and I spoke about the moves, and you’re trying to transform things. It may not be perfect, but you want to move in the right direction. What’s most important is the direction.

“If we are getting the kind of players we think we are, then we moved toward a change in culture.”

Essentially, if Weaver’s picks work, then the Pistons will work. If not, then they won’t.

Pistons fans, who have been mired in mediocrity, have responded well. A blueprint is there, and that alone is reassuring. Detroit talk radio has already branded him “Trader Troy” a nod to the nickname given to the general manager of the Bad Boys teams who was extremely active in constructing a championship roster.

“Jack McCloskey,” Weaver said, understanding it’s a significant compliment locally.

“I mean, they are going to call you something,” Weaver said, laughing. “So if it’s ‘Trader Troy,’ then I’ll take it.”

He is the first to say that nothing has been accomplished, nothing won. There is a ton of work ahead. When you’ve come as far as Troy Weaver has, however, when you’ve forged a new path to the top, all you want is an opportunity.

“We are going to stay aggressive,” Weaver promised.

“He’s owning this,” Gores said. “Whenever we talk to our executives [in any of Gores’ companies], we want them to think things through and be confident that if mistakes get made, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a plan. Troy is doing that.

“He is a winner, he’s a fighter and he wants to compete. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.”

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