Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery produced a somewhat stunning result when the New Orleans Pelicans cashed in a 6% chance and leaped past six teams with better odds to claim the top pick, universally expected to be Duke superstar Zion Williamson.
Among those shocked at the turn of events may have been Williamson himself, and it wasn’t long before informed speculation turned to the possibility that he might balk at beginning his NBA career in New Orleans. The 18-year-old sensation does have a few options, including returning to play another season for the Blue Devils.
On ESPN’s “The Jump” Wednesday, Brian Windhorst pointed out that Williamson still hasn’t hired an agent or, just as significantly, signed a shoe deal. That keeps his college eligibility intact, as long as he pulls his name out of draft consideration by June 10, the early entrant withdrawal deadline that comes 10 days before the draft itself.
Windhorst said that the topic of Williamson’s potential unhappiness with going to the Pelicans – particularly after seeing the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers come agonizingly close to getting the first pick – has been “blowing up my phone since last night.”
After suggesting that Williamson “could threaten to go back to Duke,” Windhorst said, “Now, is that the kind of person that Zion is? People that I know who know him say no, that this is not who he is.” Windhorst then added that “it’s a conversation that’s happening in the NBA right now.”
That conversation may have been fueled by a tweet Tuesday from ESPN’s Marc J. Spears just after New Orleans won the lottery. Citing a source who claimed that Williamson “was rooting to go to New York,” Spears tweeted that the AP Player of the Year in college basketball “was QUICKLY whisked out of the room after Pelicans were announced the winner of the draft lottery.”
Footage hit the internet of Williamson’s instant reaction to the lottery results, and his wide-eyed, grinning reaction allowed for a variety of interpretations. Was that a smile on his face, or more of a grimace?
The host of “The Jump,” Rachel Nichols, also anchored ESPN’s live coverage of the lottery results and said Tuesday night that when Williamson learned that the Pelicans got the No. 1 pick, he “kind of looked like he had been hit by a truck.” She claimed that “when he woke up this morning, New Orleans was not what he was thinking,” but added that “once he resets his mind-set,” Williamson would take a more optimistic view of things.
On “The Jump,” panelist Richard Jefferson brought up Steve Francis, the Maryland star who waited until he was drafted second overall in 1999 by the Grizzlies before making it clear that he had no desire to play for that team, then located in Vancouver. The Grizzlies went on to trade him to the Houston Rockets before his rookie season began.
Dominique Wilkins pulled a similar move in 1982 after being drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz, and ended up getting dealt to the Atlanta Hawks. For Williamson, as the presumptive No. 1 pick, to let the Pelicans know before the draft that he wanted no part of them would be more unusual, but it has some precedent in other sports.
The NFL saw a pair of highly touted quarterbacks, John Elway in 1983 and Eli Manning in 2004, make clear their aversions to the teams with the No. 1 picks. In both cases, though, they were still drafted by those teams before being quickly traded.
In 1991, the NHL’s Eric Lindros was also drafted No. 1 by a team he warned away, the Quebec Nordiques, who initially refused to trade him. He spent a season playing with his junior hockey club and with Canada’s national team in the 1992 Olympics before eventually getting shipped to the Philadelphia Flyers.
FS1′s Colin Cowherd cited those examples Wednesday in saying that Williamson should tell the Pelicans, “I’m taking my name out of the draft, so trade me.” Cowherd suggested that if New Orleans did not comply, Williamson could wait to become the No. 1 pick in 2020 and, in the meantime, ask if Team USA Coach Gregg Popovich had any interest in adding him to that squad.
Cowherd added that returning to Duke would amount to an inadvisable “step backward” for Williamson, but he thought the possibilities of playing overseas or simply “work out for a year” were plausible. The overseas option was used in 1989 by another Duke star, Danny Ferry, who was unhappy at being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. Ferry spent what would have been his rookie season playing in Italy, during which time he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
By possibly going back to Duke, Williamson would be making a very bold move that would cost him millions in the short term. As it was, he escaped a major scare during his one season with the Blue Devils, when a knee injury he suffered after slipping on the court turned out to be much less severe than initially feared.
Some thought Williamson should have heeded the warning that injury represented and never again played for Duke, but he said he was eager to rejoin his teammates for an NCAA tournament run. Two of his closest teammates, fellow freshman stars RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, are also set to go pro, so they wouldn’t be around if Williamson returned.
For that and other reasons, it appears highly unlikely that Williamson would actually go back to Duke. Yet as the New York Times’ Marc Stein noted Wednesday, leaving open the option to do so could give him leverage with the Pelicans.
The Pelicans are already engaged in a staredown of sorts with disgruntled all-star Anthony Davis, who they are reportedly hoping might be convinced to rescind his trade demand because of the tantalizing prospect of playing alongside Williamson. It’s also possible that Williamson could take a cue from Davis’ unhappiness in New Orleans and decide that he would also rather be elsewhere.
That dynamic could be good news for the Knicks, who had the worst record in the NBA and were crushed at falling to third in the draft, but might wind up with a crucial asset in a possible trade for Davis. If, as many mock drafts already predict, New York selects Barrett, it could dangle Williamson’s close friend to the Pelicans as the key to helping their prized rookie feel better about his situation in the Big Easy.
No matter what happens with Williamson, the fate of Davis has been and will continue to be a hot topic until he is traded or signs an extension with the Pelicans , and their landing of the No. 1 pick only adds to the intrigue. That might have been the most stunning result of the lottery – it immediately turned the Pelicans into arguably the most fascinating team in the league.