1. New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Duke
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry was elated after Tuesday night’s lottery drawing, realizing that the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson could “change everything” for a franchise overrun by Anthony Davis’s trade request. In post-lottery interviews, New Orleans seemed focus on what Williamson means for their re-recruiting efforts for Davis, who is entering the final year of his contract.
That’s a logical response in the moment. Now that the dust has settled, it looks like backward thinking. The Pelicans should be asking: What does Davis mean for Williamson? After all, Williamson will likely spend the next seven-plus years in New Orleans, and his freakish athleticism, team-first mentality, superior work ethic and two-way game make him a natural franchise player and fan favorite.
If Davis isn’t willing to recommit, and soon, the Pelicans should trade him to the highest bidder for young shooters and backcourt playmakers who will best complement Williamson’s game. Sustaining a top contender built around Williamson, given New Orleans’s long-standing struggles to attract free agents, will be infinitely harder if Davis leaves for nothing in free agency next summer. The New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers can all dangle young prospects and/or lottery picks to help launch Williamson’s career the right way.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Murray State
A lucky bounce of the lottery ping-pong balls shifted the Grizzlies’ entire organizational outlook in a split second. For months, Memphis seemed to hope that it would land outside the top eight picks so that a first-round pick it owes to the Boston Celtics would convey this year rather than in the future when it would be less protected. Now? The Grizzlies’ reshaped front office, led by Zachary Kleiman, can select Morant, a franchise point guard who looks like an ideal partner for 2018 lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr.
The 6-3 Morant should blossom into a prototypical modern lead guard, capable of scoring in transition, executing in the half-court and spreading the wealth with his superb passing ability. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol enjoyed a decade of success together as an inside/outside partnership in Memphis, and Morant and Jackson are ready to carry the torch. Speaking of Conley, landing the second pick sets up the Grizzlies to trade the 31-year-old point guard for a rebuilding package consisting of picks and prospects. Doing so would help the Grizzlies offset the future pick they owe to the Celtics and add another piece to a bubbling young core.
3. New York Knicks: RJ Barrett, Duke
Barrett, a 6-7 wing who has been regarded as Canada’s next big prospect since early in his high school days, excels at inspiring strong opinions, both good and bad. His defenders love his natural scoring ability, his alpha dog mind-set, and his craftiness with the ball in his hands. Meanwhile, his detractors question his shot selection, shaky efficiency numbers and his ball-dominance.
Although Knicks fans were let down by missing out on Williamson, landing the third pick was no small consolation prize. New York can use it to draft Barrett to fill a massive hole on the wing, try to deploy it as the centerpiece of a Davis trade package, or dangle it to teams lower in the lottery who might be willing to move up for Barrett.
4. Los Angeles Lakers: Darius Garland, Vanderbilt
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka called this pick a “powerful asset” after moving up in Tuesday’s lottery, and it’s no secret that his front office is desperate to construct a playoff-caliber roster around LeBron James as soon as possible. The fourth pick would make sense in a Davis deal, if New Orleans was willing to send him to L.A., or as the top piece in a trade for another secondary star.
Ironically, Garland, who played just five games this year before suffering a knee injury, would be a nice fit on the Lakers. The 6-2 point guard is a strong outside shooter who orchestrates well in pick-and-roll situations. If the Lakers were willing to be patient, Garland could become a secondary playmaker for James, a legitimate perimeter weapon on a team that shot poorly from outside, and a good reason to move Lonzo Ball to a more appropriate off-guard role.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
New Coach John Beilein has his hands full trying to turn around an organization left for dead by LeBron James last summer. After a dismal 19-win season, the Cavaliers must subscribe to a “Best Player Available” draft philosophy to add talent next to second-year guard Collin Sexton. At the same time, they must target players with the right mental makeup and team approach given that they are likely headed for a multiyear rebuilding effort.
Culver, a versatile 6-6 wing, checks both boxes. The preacher’s son might lack the explosive athleticism to become a top-tier superstar, but his two-way game should make him a very good long-term pro. A capable scorer and initiator, Culver should be able to guard multiple positions too.
6. Phoenix Suns: De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
The Suns have desperately needed a point guard for years, but then again they’ve desperately needed a lot of things for years. Assuming both Morant and Garland are off the board, Phoenix’s best play is to draft Hunter, the Cavaliers’ NCAA championship game star. The 6-8 forward is a defensive stalwart who can help shore up the league’s second-worst defense and provide cover for star guard Devin Booker.
7. Chicago Bulls: Coby White, UNC
Chicago’s front office hasn’t been shy about expressing its desire to upgrade the point guard position in light of Kris Dunn’s limited offensive utility and recurring injury issues. In a best-case scenario, the Bulls could move this pick for a veteran point guard like Conley. If that fails, White is a dynamic on-ball threat who can grow with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
8. Atlanta Hawks: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Clarke emerged Wednesday as one of the combine’s standouts , ranking highly on lateral quickness and vertical leaping. Although his offensive game is mostly limited to finishing in the basket area and making simple reads out of the pick-and-roll, the 6-8 forward would be a great target for Trae Young given his mobility and ultraefficient scoring. It’s easy to envision Atlanta using the 22-year-old, NBA-ready big man as an undersized, high-energy center off the bench.
9. Washington Wizards: Cam Reddish, Duke
The Wizards were one of the biggest losers on draft lottery night: Not only did they come within one ping-pong ball of winning the top pick, but the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Lakers leapfrogged them too. After barely missing out on Williamson, perhaps they can lick their wounds with Reddish, his Duke teammate.
Taking the 19-year-old wing in the top five, where many expected he would fall at the beginning of the college season, would require a leap of faith considering his underwhelming efficiency and weak finishing numbers in college. At nine, though, he would represent good value. Washington has a hole to plug after the Otto Porter Jr. salary dump, though, and Reddish has an NBA-ready frame.
10. Atlanta Hawks (from Dallas Mavericks): Jaxson Hayes, Texas
This pick arrives in Atlanta thanks to last year’s Luka Doncic for Trae Young trade. While the Hawks were probably hoping it would land higher than this before the season started, they won’t be complaining about a second top-10 selection. Alex Len provided good minutes last season, but the 6-11 Hayes projects as the type of run-and-dunk rim-protector that is often coveted by playoff teams. Getting force-fed lobs by Trae Young for the next four-plus years would make this a dream fit any center.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves: Romeo Langford, Indiana
As new team president Gersson Rosas settles in, he’s bound to conclude that he’s inheriting a roster that’s loaded with holes around franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns. Frankly, the 11th pick isn’t going to be enough to turn this ship around. Even so, Langford, a classic bucket-getting wing, could help boost an offense that was mediocre last season despite Towns’s reliable 24/12 production.
12. Charlotte Hornets: Nassir Little, UNC
The Hornets are at a crossroads with Kemba Walker heading to free agency after yet another lottery trip. If Walkers leaves, they will be in crisis mode at the point guard spot. If he stays, Charlotte will be back trying to shuffle the deck chairs and bad contracts to get over the hump.
Given that Michael Jordan and company won’t find a Walker replacement this far down the board, should they default to “Best Tar Heel Available” by tabbing Little as a Nicolas Batum understudy? The 19-year-old Little entered the season as a projected top-five pick because of his athleticism, versatility and perimeter shooting potential.
13. Miami Heat: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
The Heat have long valued strong, physical and versatile frontcourt players; Hachimura fits that mold perfectly. The 6-8 Hachimura isn’t the smoothest operator or decision-maker, but he projects as a power forward who can punish smaller matchups by scoring inside while also defending multiple positions on the perimeter. Some scouts believe Hachimura will be able to extend his shooting from the midrange out to the three-point line, a development that would significantly raise his ceiling.
14. Boston Celtics (from Sacramento Kings): Bol Bol, Oregon
The 7-3 Bol has slipped down draft boards after missing most of his freshman season with a foot injury. In an ideal world, Bol, the son of former NBA center Manute Bol, will develop into a three-point shooting, shot-blocking unicorn. Whether he can stay healthy, hold up to an NBA minutes load, and effectively cover ground defensively against smaller lineups all remain open questions. This pick is free money for the Celtics and they could afford to be patient with his development.