The NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night pitted the repeated good luck of Cleveland against the long-standing bad luck of New York — and somehow, New Orleans won. The Pelicans landed the No. 1 overall pick despite having just a 6 percent chance to do so, and they’re widely expected to use it on Duke star Zion Williamson. “It’s just an incredible blessing for our organization,” Pelicans general manager David Griffin told reporters.
Of course, any team would be likely to make the same pick. The one-and-done college basketball megastar could have become a new centerpiece for a Cavaliers franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs without LeBron James since 1998; he could have brought a change in luck to the Knicks, who haven’t had a No. 1 pick since Patrick Ewing in 1985; or he could have bolstered a Bulls frontcourt that already features Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen.
But in the first year of the new lottery format, the Pelicans got lucky. The explosion of Williamson in the past six months and the messy, dramatic saga of Anthony Davis are now intertwined. Davis requested a trade from New Orleans in January, and that storyline dominated the rest of the Pelicans’ season. New Orleans declined to trade its superstar in February, and its ultimate response still isn’t clear, but now Griffin has lots of possibilities.
So the No. 1 question from Tuesday night: Does the allure of playing with Williamson make Davis think twice about leaving New Orleans? Williamson became a spectacle during his one college season, leading all of Division I men’s college basketball in both effective field-goal percentage (.708) and player efficiency rating (40.8), according to Sports-Reference.com. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, he has the athleticism to throw down windmill dunks, while drawing a charge from him has been compared to getting hit by a Jeep.
If Davis stays, the Pelicans can win with a core of Davis, Williamson and Jrue Holiday. On offense, the Williamson-Davis tandem would be a matchup nightmare. They would thrive on pick and rolls, or they would attract the defense to the paint and kick the ball out to shooters on the perimeter. Adding the best athlete in the draft class would also boost New Orleans’s transition offense, which ranked second-to-last in the league in points per possession during the regular season.
On defense, that trio is even more formidable. Davis on the inside ranked fifth in block rate and 13th in defensive rebound rate, even in a season marred by a finger injury and the trade drama. Holiday is an All-Defensive first-team honoree who can guard the 1, 2 and 3 positions. Adding Williamson would give New Orleans another flexible piece on defense. It’s unclear what kinds of players he will be asked to guard in his career, but he’s versatile. Duke’s defense was underrated last season — the program’s best since 2010 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
Davis did warm up for the Pelicans’ season finale in April wearing a shirt that read, “That’s All Folks!” If he still ends up departing, New Orleans has more work to do, but the options look much better than they did Monday. Any trade involving Davis would command a more promising return, and it might include players more likely to stay and excel during the early stages of Williamson’s career. (Davis can become a free agent after next season.) The Pelicans could snag a young player like Jayson Tatum from Boston or Ben Simmons from the Sixers. And then there’s the lingering Lakers option, which can now include that juicy No. 4 pick that Los Angeles picked up Tuesday night.
The new lottery format, with less favorable odds for the top contenders, altered a number of franchises. The Cavaliers and the Knicks — who along with Phoenix had a 14 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick — ended up with the fifth and third picks, respectively. If New York doesn’t use the pick as trade bait, it will be guaranteed a chance to select one of the draft’s other, slightly less-hyped prospects in Williamson’s Blue Devil teammate RJ Barrett or Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
But as expected, it all comes back to Williamson. Asked what he would bring to whichever team drafts him, Williamson said on ESPN on Tuesday night, “Whatever that team needs me to do, I’m going to be able to do it.” That is a common refrain from pro hopefuls, who are coached by agents to say it. But with a once-in-a-generation talent like Williamson, it just might be true.
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