CHICAGO — David Griffin, the New Orleans Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations for roughly a month, remained composed for photos. He was asked to smile and hold up his index finger, signifying the No. 1 overall pick that his franchise had landed in a high-stakes NBA draft lottery Tuesday. He held that forced expression of happiness for several flashes.
But once the photographers stepped away, Griffin turned toward Tim Frank, the NBA’s senior director of communications. Griffin closed his eyes and briefly rested his head on Frank’s left shoulder. The thought of selecting Zion Williamson, a once-in-a-generation star who sits atop every draft board, had finally made Griffin melt.
“It’s just an incredible blessing for our organization,” Griffin told reporters.
The Pelicans, a small-market franchise engulfed in uncertainty with an unhappy superstar who wants out, defied the odds and won the potentially league-altering lottery despite having only a 6 percent, or seventh-highest, chance at the top pick in the June 20 draft. Though two other teams with lower odds — the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies — leaped into the top four, the Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Lakers came up just short of No. 1, landing the second through fourth picks, respectively. The remaining teams that did not secure a top-four pick were then ordered by worst regular season record. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns, tied with the Knicks for the best odds, ended up fifth and sixth.
For the Pelicans, it is up to Griffin, who stepped into the general manager position in April and inherited an emergency, to chart the course forward.
Anthony Davis, a six-time all-star forward and perennial MVP candidate, has been firm in his trade request, which nearly reached a conclusion last season as the team stumbled to a 33-49 finish. After appearing in only 56 games, the 6-foot-10 Davis walked into Smoothie King Arena for the home finale wearing a shirt with the classic Looney Tunes send-off: “That’s All, Folks.”
With Zion, however, comes hope.
Williamson, 18, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound multi-position athlete, was the consensus national player of the year and is universally considered a lock to be selected first on June 20. Fans in New Orleans, along with Griffin, can only hope Williamson, who spent one season at Duke creating the type of buzz not seen for an NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003, will entice their current transcendent talent — Davis was the Pelicans’ last No. 1 pick in 2012 — to stay.
“We want to create an environment that players are attracted to and we feel very strongly Anthony in totality will be attracted to what we can build and what we can offer,” said Griffin, who also admitted that winning the lottery may not necessarily convince Davis.
“I don’t think it will play into it hugely,” Griffin said of Davis’s decision. “If he was open-minded to believing that we could build a winner around him, [then] he’s more open-minded to it.”
Could Williamson sway Davis? Time will tell, though late Tuesday night, the Athletic reported that Davis’s “stance on a trade has not changed.”
Regardless, Williamson proved in one highlight-filled season with the Blue Devils that he could probably become the face of any NBA franchise. He averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, winning multiple awards, including ACC player of the year and the Naismith Award, while serving as the college game’s most famous player. He has long been designated as the fourth player in Duke’s history to go No. 1 overall.
The Williamson sweepstakes consumed the closing months of the NBA’s regular season, with multiple teams jockeying for better draft position — via worse records — for the right to draft him.
From March 1 onward, the Knicks and Cavaliers finished the season with 4-16 records, the lowest winning percentage over the last 20 games, while the Suns stumbled to a 7-13 mark. Still, the Knicks proved more capable in the art of losing, cementing the league’s worst record at 17-65. It didn’t win them the Zion sweepstakes.
For the first time, the restructured lottery system evened the odds so that the three teams with the fewest wins shared a 14 percent chance at winning the top pick Tuesday. Under the previous structure, the Knicks would have had a 25 percent chance.
During the network’s draft lottery special, ESPN anointed Williamson as the top pick. Cameras cut to a smiling Williamson, rubbing his hands and seated next to former Duke teammate RJ Barrett as analysts gushed about his abilities. The other lottery hopefuls, talented prospects filling three rows of seats, were reduced to the live studio audience for “The Zion Show.” As the praise continued Williamson grew visibly embarrassed.
Griffin remained stoic as NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announced the Grizzlies receiving the No. 2 pick, thereby sealing New Orleans as the luckiest city in the NBA.
Griffin held a worn-down wooden angel from a Pelicans season ticket holder, which he called his “lucky angel.” After posing for the No. 1 photos and speaking to media, Griffin entered the ballroom of the Hilton Downtown Chicago hotel. He could not walk three steps without receiving a handshake or a pat on the back. When Griffin stopped, well-wishers formed a wall around him.
“What I tell you!” Griffin shouted upon spotting Mike Zarren, Boston’s assistant general manager.
Earlier in the day, Griffin, believing in his lucky angel, bragged to a few general manager buddies that the Pelicans would get the No. 2 pick. He spent the rest of Tuesday night soaking up how wrong he was.
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