NBA draft winners and losers: A Magic trick and rough night for Knicks

Orlando Magic fans were pleased with the team's selection of Duke's Paolo Banchero with the first pick in the NBA draft. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/AP)

NEW YORK — In a draft night stunner, the Orlando Magic defied conventional wisdom by taking Duke’s Paolo Banchero over Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren with the No. 1 pick. Fierce debates over the top selection are fairly common, but usually they get sorted out — and leaked — well before the prospects hit the Barclays Center stage.

The last-minute surprise made for an entertaining start to a night that saw two lottery picks traded. With all 58 picks officially in the books, let’s run down Thursday’s biggest winners and losers.

Winners: Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic

A sharp change of plans can often cause anxiety or disappointment, but the Houston Rockets should be elated that Smith fell into their lap at the No. 3 pick. While there seemed to be real excitement at the prospect of pairing 2021 No. 2 pick Jalen Green with Banchero, Smith could prove to be the better long-term fit.

Smith’s defensive versatility will be a big bonus for the Rockets, who ranked last in defensive efficiency last season, and his ability to score without dominating the ball will allow more creation opportunities for Green. There was a chance that Green and Banchero would find themselves in a tug-of-war for control of the offense, and now Green can serve as the lead option, setting up Smith for drive-and-kick opportunities.

Orlando Magic makes Duke’s Paolo Banchero a surprise No. 1 pick

A similar argument can be made on the Magic side. Banchero will be cast as the alpha scorer in Orlando with 2021 lottery pick Jalen Suggs expected to be a more distribution-minded point guard. Meanwhile, the Magic has several promising frontcourt defenders who can help cover for Banchero’s limitations on that end.

For what it’s worth, both Banchero and Smith sounded satisfied with their role reversal. Banchero said that going No. 1 “felt like a fantasy,” and Smith said he was “happy” to be Houston-bound because “God makes no mistakes.”

Losers: New York Knicks

The Knicks wanted no part of this year’s festivities. First, New York traded away the No. 11 pick, Ousmane Dieng, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for future picks. Then, the Knicks rerouted the No. 13 pick, Jalen Duren, from the Charlotte Hornets to the Detroit Pistons in a three-way trade that allowed them to shed Kemba Walker’s salary.

Rather than add a lottery prospect or two to their unfinished roster, New York decided to clear cap space for its free agency pursuits. Given that there are few stars available on this summer’s market, the Knicks’ short-term thinking is likely to end with a whimper.

Winner: Chet Holmgren

Banchero’s surprise selection at No. 1 threatened to upend Holmgren’s night by sending him sliding down the board. Instead, Oklahoma City stayed the course and selected the 7-foot Gonzaga freshman rather than taking Smith. Holmgren couldn’t have asked for a better home than the small-market Thunder, which is fully committed to a patient developmental approach and can help shield him from questions about his physique early in his career. Oklahoma City reinforced its plans to build slowly by adding two other lottery picks: Dieng and Jalen Williams.

Holmgren is an “all ball, all the time” type, and he will be able to concentrate on his craft in Oklahoma City, just as he did in Spokane. Best of all, Holmgren is a highly efficient finisher around the basket and will be on the receiving end of plays set up by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. The offensive fit, especially with Giddey and his elite vision, should produce must-see TV for League Pass die-hards.

Losers: Sacramento Kings

Thursday felt like a missed opportunity for the Kings, who held the fourth pick in a draft in which there was significant interest in Jaden Ivey, an explosive guard from Purdue. Although Ivey seemed disinclined to play for Sacramento, taking him anyway was an option. De’Aaron Fox and Ivey would have given the Kings an attack-minded backcourt capable of eventually snapping the franchise’s streak of 16 straight lottery trips. Even if the Kings concluded that Fox and Ivey overlapped too much in skills, Ivey arguably has the more promising future.

But Sacramento didn’t select Ivey or even cash out the fourth pick in a trade. Instead, the Kings took Keegan Murray, and it’s hard not to wonder how many other teams would have selected the 21-year-old Iowa forward over Ivey if given the chance.

Brewer: Stephen Curry, ordinary in size and celestial in talent, has changed the game

Winners: Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are still early in the rebuilding process, but their lottery luck has been extraordinary for the past two years. In 2021, they won the right to draft Cade Cunningham, a high-level playmaker and defender, with the top overall selection. This year, Ivey, a potential all-star who should perfectly complement Cunningham, was unexpectedly available at No. 5.

Detroit General Manager Troy Weaver has turned his roster upside down since arriving in 2020, and he now has the cap flexibility to chase high-profile free agents such as Deandre Ayton this summer.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

The Nets should have been a non-factor on draft night, but another round of rumors about their ongoing saga with Kyrie Irving played out on national television for all to see. As Irving struggles to regain leverage in contract negotiations, Brooklyn suddenly faces talk that Kevin Durant might want out if his sidekick doesn’t return.

Irving’s juice has never been worth the squeeze in Brooklyn, and the franchise is unlikely to be a serious contender in 2023 even if he comes back. There aren’t great options available to Nets ownership and management: They can bring back Irving and pray that he proves to be healthier and more reliable than he has been in years, or they can risk blowing up the entire experiment just three years after Durant’s 2019 arrival.

Worst of all, the Rockets own the Nets’ 2024 and 2026 first-round picks and pick swaps in 2023, 2025 and 2o27 courtesy of the James Harden trade. A misstep this summer could have disastrous consequences for the next half-decade.

Winner: Damian Lillard

For years, the Portland Trail Blazers have suffered from roster imbalance, overloaded with scoring guards and light on versatile frontcourt players. Portland’s new GM, Joe Cronin, took the first step toward rebalancing when he shipped out CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, a pair of high-priced guards, at the February trade deadline. Cronin’s ability to fill the salary holes he created with those trades was going to determine whether all-star guard Damian Lillard would have the chance to lead a competitive team in 2023.

On Wednesday, Cronin sent a collection of picks to the Pistons for Jerami Grant. The deal made sense for both sides: Grant was in over his head as a leading scoring option in Detroit, he was eight years older than Cunningham, and he is due a new contract in the not-too-distant future. In Portland, Grant could fill a big need and set himself up for his next payday in a secondary role that is better suited to his talent level. After dealing with a half-decade of cautious front-office work under former GM Neil Olshey, Lillard had to be happy with Cronin’s early returns.

Loser: Shaedon Sharpe

The flip side of Portland’s story concerns Sharpe, a 19-year-old Canadian guard who was the top-ranked high school prospect in the Class of 2022. If the Blazers intend to execute a quick turnaround, Sharpe will probably need to wait his turn for real minutes and touches on the wing. Tack on the fact that Sharpe fell to the seventh pick and that Portland isn’t a glamour destination, and his decision to sit out his freshman year at Kentucky starts to look pretty questionable.

Winners: The NBA’s global academies

The NBA has quietly invested significant time and resources building international academies to locate and develop talent in Australia, Africa, India and Latin America. Last year, Giddey became the first graduate of one of these academies to be drafted. This year, two more academy graduates were selected in the lottery: Bennedict Mathurin, a Canadian who went sixth to the Indiana Pacers, and Dyson Daniels, an Australian who went eighth to the New Orleans Pelicans.

For the NBA, these selections are an important milestone and proof of concept. What’s most interesting is that Giddey, Mathurin and Daniels all took different paths from the academies to the NBA: Giddey played professionally overseas, Mathurin went to Arizona for two years, and Daniels spent a season with the G League Ignite. Expect the NBA to double down on its successes and for these creative pipelines to produce even more high-level talent in the coming years.

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