When NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum opened an envelope and announced which team would receive the third overall pick in the league’s annual draft next month, a palpable tsunami of disappointment engulfed the vast New York Knicks fan base.
Visions of 1985, the year of the first draft lottery, when the Knicks were awarded the top overall pick and the prize of franchise altering center Patrick Ewing, dramatically faded with Tatum declaring: “The third pick goes to—the New York Knicks.” Even with Ewing representing the Knicks at the lottery, held Tuesday, May 14, in Chicago, they couldn’t compel lady luck to shine favorably upon them and grant the gift of Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-7 280 pound man-child from Duke.
The Knicks, who finished with the worst record in the league this past season at 17-65, had a 14 percent chance of landing the first pick. The Phoenix Suns and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were both 19-63, also had a 14 percent probability. This was the first year of the NBA’s new lottery system in which the teams with the three lowest records all were accorded equal odds to dissuade tanking, or strategically putting an uncompetitive team on the court.
Prior to Tuesday’s lottery, the team with the worst record was designated the highest odds of winning. As it turned out, neither the Knicks, Suns nor Cavaliers received the top pick. It was the New Orleans Pelicans, who only had a 6 percent chance of winning, that celebrated the stunning results. A plethora of conspiratorial Knicks fans texted or emailed this writer convinced the lottery was rigged.
This year’s lottery was one of the most highly anticipated ever because of Williamson, who many believe is a transcendent talent. Williamson, who won’t turn 19 until July, is the subject of more media coverage than any player entering the draft since LeBron James in 2003. But he isn’t James, whose combination of size, athleticism, basketball acumen and skill set had rarely, if ever, been seen in someone so young.
By the time he was 16, James was already a national figure and it was evident to anyone with a discerning eye that he would someday take his place among the game’s all-time greats. While Zion has been a social media sensation for his spectacular dunks as a standout on the AAU circuit and star at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina for the past several years, unlike James, there is no consensus on what he will become in the NBA.
The 6-foot-8 260-pound James, officially listed as a forward, is one of the great passers and facilitators in the history of the sport. He is in essence, similar to Magic Johnson, a remarkable point guard in the body of an NFL tight end. Williamson, who has the physical make-up of a defensive end, doesn’t possess the multidimensional skills of James. It’s likely he’ll become a very good pro but projections of him evolving into a franchise player are dubious.
Nevertheless, Williamson, by all accounts a wonderful young and consummate teammate, is already one of basketball’s most appealing players and will pack arenas across the NBA. He may not instantly help transform the Pelicans into a playoff or title contender but his jersey sales and impending deal with a shoe company are almost certain to shatter rookie records.
As for the Knicks, Williamson would have been a great asset as either a cornerstone player or trade chip to acquire the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, who will soon be teammates with Williamson, perhaps just briefly as conjecture persists that Davis still wants to part ways with the Pelicans.
With the third pick and salary cap space to sign two players to max contracts this summer, the Knicks are in a position to make a huge leap forward next season. But their future remains uncertain and concerning. The franchise has been abysmal for the better part of the past two decades, unable to gain any positive traction, which leaves fans rightfully skeptical.
Tuesday’s lottery outcome was indeed disheartening for fans with high expectations the team would at last experience good fortune. The summer ahead may still provide them with that wish.