NBA Draft lottery 2019: Zion Williamson’s best (and worst) possible landing spots
CHRIS STONE | SPORTING NEWS
On Tuesday night, a sequence of events that will help shape the futures of several NBA franchises and the lives of many young men will be determined by some bouncing ping pong balls. The NBA Draft lottery, which determines the selection order for the NBA Draft, is always compelling television, but this year should produce an even more anxiety-ridden atmosphere than past lotteries for two reasons.
First, back in September 2017, the league approved a lottery reform package designed to target tanking. The deal flattened out the odds at the top of the lottery. Previously, the worst team in the league had a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick. Now, that franchise as well as the second- and third-worst teams in the league have equal 14 percent chances. Teams four through 13 also have improved odds at snagging the No. 1 slot. The higher variance will offer more teams hope on lottery night.
Second, the thing they’re hoping for – that No. 1 pick – is immeasurably better than any other pick in the draft this year and figures to be one of the most valuable No. 1 picks in the last decade-plus. That’s because, barring any sort of freak incident, Duke’s Zion Williamson will be the first selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.
As an 18-year-old, Williamson averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. No college freshman since at least 1992-93 has matched those numbers. He is a one percent of the one percent level athlete. If there were an Occupy Wall Street movement founded by unathletic people, they would protest him in Zuccotti Park.
Williamson also owns the highest Player Efficiency Rating on record this decade. The gap between him and second place on the list is the same as the gap between second and 22nd. Ditto for Box Plus/Minus, although the gap isn’t quite as large. In short, he’s the best college prospect to enter the draft since Anthony Davis, and he has a compelling case for being better.
High variance. High stakes. Compelling television.
The interesting question then turns to where the basketball collective should want Williamson to land. There are fun spots from a basketball perspective, fun spots from a spectacle perspective and less fun spots from every perspective. Here’s a look at the top hits for each…
Zion Williamson’s fun basketball landing spots
Atlanta Hawks (Lottery odds: 10.5 percent)
The narrative that general manager Travis Schlenk is attempting to create his own version of the faux Warriors would pick up added steam if the Hawks landed Williamson. Last summer, it was Trae Young and Kevin Huerter filling the “Splash Brothers” role. This summer, it would be Williamson playing his own version of Draymond Green.
Offensively, Williamson wouldn’t have any issues filling the role. He’s capable of pushing the ball in transition and doesn’t need the ball to create efficient offense in the half court. His ability as a ball handler and passer would shine in short-roll, ball-screen situations with Young. He could likely ease himself into a higher usage role offensively over time.
Defensively, the Duke product can shine as a free safety. He reads the floor well, disrupting passing lanes and challenging shots at the rim. He’s also capable of switching onto smaller players – his athleticism allows him to make up ground even if he gets beat off the dribble. His girth should help him compete against most of the league’s biggest bigs.
This fit is ultimately about pairing Williamson with other talented young players and allowing them to grow together over time in a manner that’s already been successful.
Dallas Mavericks (Lottery odds: 6.0 percent)
Consider this a similar situation to Atlanta, except instead of Young, Williamson pairs with Luka Doncic to form one of the most tantalizing young duos in the league. Oh, and probably Kristaps Porzingis.
The interplay between Doncic and Williamson should be exciting for obvious reasons, so it’s probably worth diving a bit further into the fit between Williamson and Porzingis. The 7-3 Latvian is exactly the type of long-range launching big man who would fit well next to Williamson in a frontcourt, as his presence on the perimeter would help limit spacing concerns. The biggest difficulty facing a franchise building around Williamson is his lack of consistent jump shooting. Porzingis is a solution.
Williamson would offer Dallas a small-ball solution in the playoffs when games downsize and Porzingis might have trouble staying on the floor against capable pull-up shooters like James Harden, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. If the next evolution of playoff basketball is combining larger size with the traditional pace and space of small ball, a team could do a lot worse than starting with Doncic and Williamson.
Minnesota Timberwolves (Lottery odds: 3.0 percent)
The trendy pick for Minnesota in several mock drafts has been Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke because he pairs well with Karl-Anthony Towns as a prospect who requires a shooting frontcourt mate, doesn’t require a ton of touches offensively and does make up for defensive deficiencies. In this scenario, Williamson is just a much better version of Clarke.
Plus, there’s a bit of humor value here. Watching the intensely competitive Williamson interact with the lackadaisicalness of Andrew Wiggins would be priceless.
Zion Williamson’s fun spectacle landing spots
New York Knicks (Lottery odds: 14.0 percent)
The Knicks could have a compelling case to be one of the fun basketball landing spots for Williamson should their free-agency plans come to fruition. Adding the 18-year-old to a Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving pairing would certainly be worthy.
But, as things stand, it’s not clear if the once great franchise will come through with such a booming offseason, so we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: a heap of NBA offseason drama.
The Knicks landing Williamson would not only trigger conversations about free agents. It would also launch New York right into the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. Williamson might be the most coveted available prospect in the league, assuming the Knicks were willing to put his potential selection into a deal.
Los Angeles Lakers (Lottery odds: 2.0 percent)
The Lakers are already the NBA’s favorite disaster and a massive media spectacle. Adding the most well-known prospect since LeBron James to the mix would take things to a new level.
There are some obvious downsides here. Williamson would inevitably be compared to a young version of his new teammate, a perfect explanation for why prospect comparisons are ultimately unfair to all parties involved. It’s also not clear the Lakers have the development system in place to foster an optimal environment for Williamson.
Still, the appeal of adding Williamson to the mix is enough to make this a fun landing spot.
New Orleans Pelicans (Lottery odds: 6.0 percent)
Outside of the aforementioned interesting basketball situations, this may be the most intriguing place for Williamson to end up. Just over one in 20 times New Orleans will win the lottery, which would have strange implications for those Anthony Davis sweepstakes.
For starters, the Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick would immediately remove another franchise from potentially entering the conversation and using Williamson as a bargaining chip. It could also prove a fine argument to Davis for sticking around in New Orleans and allowing new general manager David Griffin to work his magic. Griffin has remained optimistic about the organization’s chances of working things out with Davis. Perhaps this would help.
Zion Williamson’s not-so-fun spots
Chicago Bulls (Lottery odds: 12.5 percent)
It’s not that Chicago would necessarily be a bad development situation for Williamson. It’s just that it might not be an optimal one, for him and others. Williamson figures to be at his best in the NBA playing in either the power forward or center spot, and the Bulls already have a pair of young talents at those positions in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
Trying to fit Williamson in as a small forward in those lineups might not be a disaster, but it wouldn’t be his best fit. If he failed there, he’d likely limit the development minutes of Markkanen and/or Carter, an outcome that would be a negative for the NBA as a whole.
Chicago should still obviously select Williamson if it lands the No. 1 pick, but there are better places for him to end up.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Lottery odds: 14.0 percent)
From a story perspective and basketball perspective, this one is all wrong. Williamson doesn’t deserve to have to shoulder the burden of comparisons to LeBron for the entirety of his career.
Williamson also doesn’t deserve to have to fight Collin Sexton for the ball on offense.
Phoenix Suns (Lottery odds: 14.0 percent)
We simply cannot waste the best college prospect in nearly a decade on an organization whose owner let goats run rampant over the general manager’s office, no matter how enjoyable the fit between Williamson and Devin Booker might be.
Zion Williamson on His College Experience at Duke: ‘Honestly, I Don’t Want to Leave’
KHADRICE ROLLINS | SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
In another world, Zion Williamson stays at Duke for another season.
“You get this college experience once,” he says. “If you’re in a situation like mine, where you’re one and done, I’m just trying to make the most of what I got. I love Duke, and honestly, I don’t want to leave. If I didn’t have as much at stake, I probably would stay for another year. But I can’t.
“Being at Duke was a dream come true for me. Everything about it. Looking to the sidelines, Whoa, that’s Coach K I’m playing for! Coach K is looking at me [and] telling me I’m built for this moment. I have a true brotherhood on and off the court. Everything was just a movie,” he says. “This was the best year of my life. So if I could come back for a second year I would, but unfortunately that’s just not the reality we live in. The reality we live in is [that] my ultimate dream is the NBA. It’s what I’ve been dreaming about as a kid so I have to pursue that. And I have to take care of my family.”
Calle also spoke with Williamson’s step-father, Lee Anderson, who says Williamson “waited until the last minute” to declare for the NBA draft and Williamson “really, really didn’t want to say goodbye.”
“He was a little bit remorseful about doing it,” Anderson told Calle. “He was just kind of sad. We kept calling him and saying, ‘Hey Zion, you have a deadline to meet. You need to make sure you get it done by this time.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll get it. I’ll do it.’ He wasn’t in no hurry to get it done. So I just told my wife to let him be. Give him time.”
Williamson, who finished his one college season with every accolade you could think of besides a national title, will likely learn where he will start his NBA career on Tuesday when the NBA draft lottery takes place and the team with the No. 1 pick is decided.