The NBA Draft was an exciting night filled with surprises after the first three picks. There was no early intrigue with Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barrett going where they were expected to land.
Yet, there are so many prospects now — players who could make impacts from 23-year-old seniors to one-and-dones to those who chose to skip college and just work out for a season — that the draft is unpredictable. But it’s an opportunity for the lowliest of teams, such as the Knicks, Suns, or Bulls, to shine as they make decisions preparing for their future.
There will be winners and losers, and while it’s anything but an exact science to predict those who will thrive and falter after this draft, we’ll give it our best shot.
Pelicans: A few months ago, questions as to whether the NBA could survive in New Orleans persisted. Anthony Davis wanted out and the Pelicans were just an also-ran with a disgruntled star playing in an empty arena. Then the night of May 14 occurred and the Pelicans won the draft lottery, gained the right to draft Williamson, and sharp general manager David Griffin started making moves, including dealing Davis to the Lakers. The result was nabbing Williamson, a franchise-changing player, along with Texas freshman Jaxson Hayes and talented Virginia Tech shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Pelicans got better and now can pursue a free agent to join Williamson and Jrue Holiday. The goal was to reshape the roster and that’s exactly what Griffin did.
Hawks: They decided to tear things up a few years ago after failing to reach the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and, so far, their rebuild couldn’t be going better. Not only are the Hawks young and skilled with Trae Young and John Collins leading the way, they picked up three more prospects on draft night, taking two-way ace De’Andre Hunter, former Duke standout Cam Reddish, and Maryland strongman Bruno Fernando. Like New Orleans, now comes the job of adding an established free agent to the equation. But the Hawks have ensured they are one of the teams to watch during the next decade.
Celtics: It was a tough week in Boston and the Celtics needed to do something to make themselves feel good. With three first-round picks, the Celtics were able to take two established college players — Indiana’s Romeo Langford and Tennessee’s Grant Williams — and then spin that other first-round pick into a later first-round pick and a second-rounder. They then traded that pick — No. 24, along with Aron Baynes — to Phoenix for a first-round pick next season. What separates the Celtics’ draft from others is their second-round selections. They nabbed Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, a prolific scorer, along with LSU guard Tremont Waters, who was a first-team All-SEC selection and the conference’s defensive player of the year.
Heat: They are so far over the salary cap that they have to score big in the draft to improve. They were able to get two key pieces in Kentucky guard Tyler Herro and Stanford swingman KZ Okpala. Herro is a shooter who will add athleticism and toughness to the backcourt, while Okpala could develop into a star and perhaps would have been a lottery pick had he stayed in school for another year. Either way, the Heat were able to add two talented players who will come cheap and that was their biggest priority.
Timberwolves: They traded up to sixth to get Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver and then took Pac-12 player of the year Jaylen Nowell from Washington. Culver could turn into a real star because of his ability to play defense. Minnesota would not have gotten him at 11, its original draft position, so it swapped picks with Phoenix. The Timberwolves desperately need defenders and some fresh faces after a disappointing season. With coach Ryan Saunders getting the permanent job, the Timberwolves appear headed in the right direction.
Spurs: They never go in a conventional draft direction and again they took Croatian power forward Luka Samanic, the ability to be a stretch-4 under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. San Antonio has a strong history of developing overseas players and Samanic could soon turn into a rotation player. San Antonio then went with two SEC players in Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon to add depth. Weatherspoon was a late bloomer who developed into a dependable scorer in his senior season. He could make the roster as a second-round pick.
Knicks: They failed in their quest to get Williamson when they lost out on the draft lottery and landed the third overall pick. But they used the pick wisely on Barrett, who was the No. 1 NBA prospect entering last season as he entered Duke. Barrett said he wanted to be a Knick, which worked out well for him. He is another solid building block along with last year’s lottery pick, Kevin Knox. Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis could become a fan favorite because of his 3-point prowess and his confidence. He was the Big Ten freshman of the year in his lone season in Ann Arbor.
Suns: They made that draft-night trade with the Celtics, seizing the opportunity to take Virginia guard Ty Jerome but they also took Cameron Johnson, who will be 23 when the season begins, 11th overall after their pick swap with the Timberwolves. The Suns could have taken perhaps a more impactful player at 11 or, if they had decided on Johnson, traded down further to grab the North Carolina forward in the 20s. The Suns have a bunch of forwards and swingmen, so it’s curious as to why they would pass on a much-needed point guard and take Johnson so high. Jerome could turn into a front-line point guard but, as the 27th pick, it could take a few years. The Suns needed to score big in this draft and they just didn’t.
Magic: Orlando had just one pick and selected Auburn forward Chuma Okeke, who could miss most of the season with a torn ACL suffered in Auburn’s run in the NCAA Tournament. Okeke could end up being a solid rotational player but he wasn’t projected to go in the top 20 and the Magic took him 16th overall. It’s not that he’s projected to be a bust. Okeke will be a factor when he’s healthy, but the Magic could have gotten much more value at 16 considering it was their only pick.
Lakers: They traded so much to the Pelicans for Davis, they needed to fill their roster with prospects who come cheap. Instead, they took one player, Iowa State freshman Talen Horton-Tucker, who could turn into a quality player, but one-and-dones taken in the second round are usually projected for the G-League. What the Lakers needed were experienced college players who could come in and contribute right away. Instead they are pretty much relegated to using free agency to fill their roster with minimum-salary players.
Cavaliers: They were able to maneuver three first-round picks and used them on two players who could play point guard to join the point guard they took in the lottery last season. Cleveland definitely picked up talent in this draft, but its backcourt could be mighty crowded with Collin Sexton, and draft picks Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. New coach John Beilein said he envisions Sexton and Garland being a Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum type of backcourt, but what happens with Porter? And don’t the Cavaliers already have combo guard Jordan Clarkson? Definitely a logjam for the new-look Cavaliers.
Canada becoming rich in prospects
Six players with Canadian roots were drafted Thursday night, including third overall pick RJ Barrett and 17th pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the cousin of Clippers point guard and fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
It’s a testament to how much talent has been generated north of the border in this generation, sparked by the Toronto Raptors and the popularization of the NBA in Canada. Four of those draft picks talked about how impactful the NBA has been on their careers and how Canadian players such as Steve Nash served as influences.
And the Canadian national team, which could be loaded this season if even half of its NBA players participate, is vying for its first Olympic berth since 2000. Barrett is the son of former St. John’s and Canadian national team standout Rowan Barrett.
“It’s amazing to be Canadian,” said Barrett, taken third overall by the Knicks.
“We take a lot of pride. That’s why I’ve got my Canadian flags on this side of my jacket. To put it on for our country, that means a lot. My dad, man, is big. He’s big with Canada basketball. He’s big with me. He helps me through everything.
“Canadian basketball is really on the rise. You see we have probably six, maybe more, in the draft this year. We have probably four of us going in the first round. So it’s just amazing. Canada basketball is on the rise. We’re going to have to cut some NBA players from the [national] team this summer. But it’s great.”
Alexander-Walker is a Toronto native who transferred to high school in St. Louis and then Tennessee before committing to Virginia Tech. He left the Hokies following his sophomore season after averaging 16.2 points.
Alexander-Walker said having the Raptors in his home country has inspired many young Canadian kids to embrace basketball.
“It’s given it a chance, opportunity,” he said. “I feel like it’s showing more and more kids that were in my position that you can one day be here just like I am. I know guys like Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis gave me hope. Now, as RJ [Barrett] got selected. I got selected. Hopefully more. Canadians who get selected can kind of give those kids and other generations hope.”
As for Brandon Clarke, taken 21st overall and headed to the Grizzlies, he was born in Vancouver and moved to Phoenix when he was 4 years old.
“Yeah, I just feel like there’s lots of talents coming out of there now,” Clarke said.
“I’m not sure why it took so long, but I would just say probably because basketball is getting bigger and bigger and it’s gotten much bigger, too, in Canada. And also with the Raptors winning, that’s going to make it even bigger. It’s just been really fun to watch the evolution of basketball in the country.”
Nash is essentially the Canadian basketball forefather, and his influence on the national team and many younger players has become evident. He was also close friends with Rowan Barrett, and is RJ’s godfather.
“I’m a huge fan of every player that comes out of the country of Canada,” Clarke said. “To see players come out of there and be very good is something that’s awesome.
“I’m somebody who grew up watching Nash play and I always thought it was really cool he was from Canada because I am, too. RJ Barrett obviously is somebody who’s going to be huge for them. So it’s just really cool seeing the next big player coming out of Canada.”
Clarke will be joining fellow rookie Ja Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. on the Grizzlies.
“Yeah, I’ve watched them both plenty and I think it’ll be very fun playing with them both,” Clarke said. “Ja is clearly one of the most fun players to watch ever to me, and Jaren is also a very great talent. I’m just really looking forward to being able to play with those guys.”
Florida State center Mfiondu Kabengele is from Burlington, Ontario, and transferred to high school in Indiana before committing to the Seminoles. He was the 27th overall pick and is headed to the Clippers.
“It’s been growing steadily with the pioneers in Steve Nash; we have Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis,” Kabengele said.
“I feel like other Canadian kids like myself are inspired. We took our training much more seriously. The game has globalized more where there is more cohesion, especially in AAU basketball.
“That’s why I feel the Canadian game has been growing, just because of the overall growth and just constant competition, especially in the United States. I feel like in this next group of kids who have watched me, the same way I’ve watched others, it’s just going to grow from there.”
Boston College guard Ky Bowman went undrafted Thursday but finds himself with an interesting decision. He can either go all in and sign with an NBA club for a summer league deal, free agent contract, or two-way deal, or he could return to BC for his senior season. NBA Draft prospects that were invited to the combine but went undrafted have the option of returning to school. Of course, BC just signed USC grad transfer Derryck Thornton to essentially replace Bowman, who was expected to be at least a second-round pick. There were several early-entry players who went undrafted, including UCLA’s Moses Brown, Missouri center Jontay Porter, St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, Oregon freshman Louis King, Auburn guard Jared Harper, Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort, and Central Florida guard Aubrey Hawkins. Many of these players will sign two-way contracts or even partially guaranteed contracts, but the amount of undrafted early-entry players is a prime example of some of these kids getting bad advice. There still remains only 60 spots in the NBA Draft and many of these kids could boost their stock by returning to school . . . There are some serious issues in Houston with All-Stars James Harden and Chris Paul feuding over a variety of issues, including how the offense should run and whether Harden should be so ball dominant. Although Harden will go down as one of the game’s greatest scorers, he’s difficult to play with for point guards because he controls the ball so much of the time. Paul is also considered difficult to play with, judging from some feuds with former teammates. Paul can be commanding and grating to teammates, but the question is what will the Rockets do? Paul has one of the worst contracts in NBA history, as he is scheduled to earn $44 million in 2021-22, when he will be 37 years old. No team is going to pick up that contract unless the Rockets take one or two unwanted contracts in return. In 2020-21, Harden and Paul will earn a combined $81 million in salary. Harden is also a free agent after that season, so that will become more of a looming issue, especially as his relationship with Paul deteriorates. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey denies there is any major issues or that Paul has asked for a trade, although reports claim Paul wants out.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.