Winners: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett
The top three picks enjoyed storybook nights, landing with organizations that will offer them major opportunities to contribute right away and with eager fan bases ready to buy into their futures. Their joy was unmistakable: Williamson shed some happy tears, Morant shared a long embrace with his father, and Barrett welled up as his father, Rowan, expressed his pride. Rarely does the top of the draft unfold in such tidy fashion.
It’s worth noting that these three were able to enjoy their night largely free from trade speculation or the shadow of free agency. The Pelicans cleared the deck for Williamson by agreeing to trade Anthony Davis on Saturday, the Memphis Grizzlies set the table for Morant by agreeing to move Mike Conley on Wednesday, and the New York Knicks, despite some last-minute workouts earlier in the week, kept their full attention on Barrett on Thursday. In some years, that’s not always the case — as in 2017, when Jimmy Butler was traded by the Bulls.
The way this year’s draft played out might not have been as good for lovers of chaos and social media storms, but it was certainly better for the teenagers who got to bask in the NBA community’s full attention.
Loser: The NBA’s trade rules and moratorium
Things got significantly more complicated after the first three picks after trades accumulated at a dizzying rate. The Pelicans took a pick they got from the Lakers in the Davis trade and sent it on to the Hawks, who used it on De’Andre Hunter. Following NBA protocol, the Virginia forward was given a Lakers hat to wear even though L.A. was two teams removed from his actual destination.
Meanwhile, USC guard Kevin Porter was asked in his post-draft news conference whether he was looking forward to playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of course, Milwaukee had traded its pick to Detroit, who moved it along to Cleveland. Instead of Antetokounmpo, Porter will be taking the court with Cedi Osman.
And then there were the Suns, who sent out a news release announcing their picks that featured this disclaimer: “The Suns are currently in discussions to trade the draft rights to those picks and will have no further comments until after trade discussions are complete, most likely after the moratorium ends on July 6.”
The NBA has reached a point where the high volume of trades and free agency signings is pushing the league’s rules past the breaking point. Even for die-hard fans, it has become far too confusing to track which players are going to which teams during the draft.
It’s time the NBA simplifies its standards for trades and approves them more quickly so that the players aren’t put in awkward positions on their big nights and so fans can get excited about their potential new stars without needing to wait more than two weeks before the deals are official.
Winners: Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis zeroed in on Morant almost immediately after it won the rights to the second pick. The Murray State product should deliver an excitement factor that has been lacking in recent years, and he already seems to enjoy a natural off-court chemistry with Jaren Jackson Jr.
A good night got even better thanks to a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that landed Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke. While he’s a darling of the advanced analytics community thanks to his high-efficiency finishing and his impressive defensive production, Clarke must play with a quality lead guard to reach his potential because most of his offense is derivative. Morant is a perfect candidate for that role.
To be clear, the Grizzlies’ roster has plenty of holes. But their young core pieces fit together extremely well on paper.
In his first draft as GM, Phoenix’s James Jones turned in a perplexing showing. Rather than use the sixth pick to take Jarrett Culver or Coby White — prospects with significant upside who would address areas of need — Jones traded down to the 11th pick to draft Cameron Johnson.
An experienced GM would be able to pinpoint which spot he needed to land to get his man. Johnson, a 23-year-old sharpshooting forward who was projected outside the top 20, surely would have been available later than 11. The move brought back shades of Vlade Divac’s thirsty pursuit of washout center Georgios Papagiannis three years ago.
On the bright side, the Johnson selection inspired one of the night’s best moments: White reacting in stunned amazement when he was informed how high his UNC teammate had climbed. White looked like Oprah Winfrey just gifted him a new car.
Celtics fans have been understandably somber given the anticipated departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Hopes for a splashy draft night sputtered, as Boston settled for some minor trades. Unless president Danny Ainge unexpectedly lands a high-profile free agent, the Celtics appear headed for an extended retooling period.
There’s a healthy debate to be had over whether the Hawks traded up for the right target. They used the fourth pick, acquired from the Pelicans, to draft Hunter and then selected Duke’s Cam Reddish at No. 10. While there were other players with higher ceilings than Hunter available at four, Hunter’s three-and-D game makes him an ideal fit with Trae Young and John Collins. His job will be simple: Balance the floor and stick the open three.
Even better: Atlanta added two wings that operate in separate lanes: If Hunter is the defensive stopper, Reddish could become a high-level complementary scorer. As they grow, Hunter and Reddish should be able to play together and their games shouldn’t overlap in negative ways.
The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland with the fifth pick, a decision that can be justified with two arguments: He was the best player available, and his best skill — shooting — is extremely valuable.
The downside, however, is that it creates a potential point guard battle between Garland and 2018 lottery pick Collin Sexton. Both players are defensive liabilities who are accustomed to having the ball in their hands. For Sexton, the selection comes after a trying rookie season in which he played through reports that his veteran teammates were questioning whether he could show improvement down the stretch. Now he enters Year 2 with a new coach and direct competition at his position.
Playing Garland and Sexton together sounds like a recipe for trouble. Indeed, it’s possible that Sexton might have just found himself in the same predicament faced by Emmanuel Mudiay in Denver a few years ago. One day, he thought the Nuggets were his team. The next, Jamal Murray was being phased in and he was on the trade block.
This might sound nuts, given that Bol began last season as a projected top-five pick and slipped to the 44th spot. In fact, the 7-foot-2 Bol left the green room to watch the proceedings in private once he was still on the board at the end of the first round.
But Bol made a triumphant return in the middle of the second round, reappearing to hear his name called and enjoying some hearty cheers.
He’s a winner because he shook off a demoralizing situation to see his “Welcome to the NBA” moment through to the end and because he ultimately landed in an ideal spot with the Denver Nuggets. Remember, Denver just redshirted 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. as he returned from a back injury, and the Nuggets happen to have all-NBA center Nikola Jokic locked in for the foreseeable future. Bol’s return from a season-ending foot injury will be treated with maximum patience.
Losers: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green
Warriors fans hoping for an injection of NBA-ready talent to help Stephen Curry and Draymond Green left empty-handed. If Golden State was ever going to put a premium on established players with the ability to step in and handle rotation minutes, this was the year, given major injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Instead, the Warriors played the long game, selecting Michigan sophomore Jordan Poole, Serbian project Alen Smailagic and Villanova second-rounder Eric Paschall. Golden State’s front office is in for an extraordinarily busy free agency.