After months of breathless anticipation — and a race to the bottom of the standings by several teams — the New Orleans Pelicans shocked everyone by winning the N.B.A. draft lottery on Tuesday night, giving them the No. 1 pick in a draft that will include one of the most acclaimed prospects in league history: Duke’s Zion Williamson.
For the Pelicans to win the lottery, the three teams with the worst records this season — the Knicks (17-65), the Cleveland Cavaliers (19-63) and the Phoenix Suns (19-63) — had to lose again. They each came into the night with a 14 percent chance of getting the top pick in a revamped system designed to reduce the value of finishing at the very bottom. The Knicks ended up with the No. 3 pick, the Cavaliers with No. 5 and the Suns with No. 6.
New Orleans was tied for the seventh-best chance of getting the first pick — at just 6 percent — after finishing the season with a 33-49 record. Though not among the teams that appeared to tank for draft position, the Pelicans had trouble focusing all season because of drama surrounding a trade demand from their signature star, Anthony Davis. The question of what to do now about Davis — and possibly the rights to Williamson — will undoubtedly captivate the league in the lead-up to the draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 20.
Regardless of whether New Orleans stays at No. 1 or trades the pick, the top choice in the draft will almost assuredly be used on the 18-year-old Williamson, a player who has received as much attention as any amateur since LeBron James went straight to the N.B.A. from high school in 2003.
In an age in which 3-point-shooting skills seem to be valued above all else, Williamson is a throwback to a more rough-and-tumble era of the N.B.A. He stands 6 feet 7 inches and tips the scales at 280 pounds of sculpted muscle. He does much of his damage in the paint, using his power and his leaping ability to set up countless highlight-reel dunks.
Williamson acknowledged the overwhelming hype while doing his best to appear humble ahead of Tuesday’s lottery.
“The biggest challenge is just trying to live up to everyone’s expectations,” he said in an interview televised before the lottery.
[The legend of Zion Williamson? That started long before he got to Duke.]
The night could not have played out better for David Griffin, who was named the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Pelicans in April.
Griffin’s previous team, the Cavaliers, got the No. 1 pick in the lottery three times during his tenure, and now the Pelicans, who have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs, have the top spot for the second time in their history. The first time was in 2012, when, while still using the nickname Hornets, they selected Davis.
As the audience waited for Mark Tatum, the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner, to announce the top four picks, Griffin stood onstage at the Hilton Chicago with the representatives of the three other teams that had yet to learn their fate. To his right loomed Patrick Ewing, the Hall of Fame Knicks center who was representing his former team, and to his left was Elliot Perry, a part-owner of the Memphis Grizzlies.
After the No. 3 pick went to the Knicks, Griffin leaned into Perry to brace for the announcement of the runner-up. He celebrated as soon as the Grizzlies were named as the recipients of the No. 2 pick.
“I think it’s just another positive event for us in what’s going to be — we hope — several that we stack together,” Griffin said immediately after the lottery.
However enviable the Pelicans’ circumstances seemed in that moment, the team must resolve the complications of having a disgruntled superstar and the opportunity to pick Williamson, who plays power forward, the same position as Davis. Griffin has said since his hiring that he did not consider trading Davis a foregone conclusion and that he believes the addition of a player like Williamson could increase the odds that Davis chooses to stay.
“I think if you look at the totality of where this organization is and where we’re going, we feel very strongly that we’re going be the environment he wants to be part of,” Griffin said. “And if we’re not, that’s fine. We can deal with it from there.”
Whoever ends up with Williamson — be it the Pelicans or another team via trade — will get a terrific player on both ends of the court who became just the third freshman to win the Naismith Award, which recognizes the nation’s top college player. He averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds a game for the Blue Devils on their path to a round-of-8 appearance, with many feeling that the air drained out of the N.C.A.A. tournament when Duke was upset by Michigan State.
Until that loss, the only thing that had slowed Williamson’s progress was a knee injury sustained when one of his sneakers split apart in the opening minute of a game against North Carolina in February. That moment, in which a shoe could not withstand the force of moving the giant player from side to side, seemed to bolster the Paul Bunyan-like hyperbole applied to Williamson, apparently without creating lasting physical problems for him.
The overall lottery played out like this (with the picks from 15 to 30 coming in reverse order of the 2018-19 standings):
1. New Orleans Pelicans
2. Memphis Grizzlies
4. Los Angeles Lakers
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
6. Phoenix Suns
7. Chicago Bulls
8. Atlanta Hawks (via Dallas)
9. Washington Wizards
10. Atlanta Hawks
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
12. Charlotte Hornets
13. Miami Heat
14. Boston Celtics (via Sacramento)
In what should be viewed as a positive development by the league office, the fates of the Knicks, the Cavaliers and the Suns lent credibility to the new lottery system, which ended up flattening out the benefits of a bad record. This was the first draft under the new system, which team owners approved in 2017. In addition to lowering the worst team’s chance of getting the top pick to 14 percent from 25 percent, it gave every franchise aside from the three with the most losses a better shot at finishing high in the lottery.
Ewing, who came to the Knicks as the No. 1 pick in 1985, the first year of the draft lottery, was unable to provide similar magic for a team that seemed to be pursuing the top pick so diligently that the director Spike Lee joked about it at this year’s Academy Awards.
Instead it was Griffin’s Pelicans that came away with the biggest draft prize in 16 years.
“This just jump-starts the process,” Griffin said while trying to play down his excitement. “It’ll be harder for me to mess it up than it would have been before this.”