Zion Williamson wore white to the NBA Draft on Thursday, but it was more important to the New Orleans Pelicans and the NBA that he sported a wide smile after the team did as expected and took him with the first overall pick.
There had been some feeling Williamson was upset on the night of the NBA Lottery as he watched his chances of playing for the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers dissipated by the randomness of the mathematical odds. Some thought they saw a frown when he realized he’d be playing for one of the league’s marginal franchises.
But there was no sign of that Thursday. He smiled broadly and even cried a little bit, consumed by the emotion of watching his dream come true and, perhaps, realizing how much the Pelicans will depend on him to turn around their moribund team.
“Oh, you can hear people say things like, ‘Oh, that it was likely I was going to go No. 1,’ but I guess you don’t know until you actually go through it,” Williamson said. “Hearing my name called, and I was able to make it on stage without a tear, shake the commissioner’s hand, but in the interview with my mom standing beside me, and my emotions just took over.”
The selection of Williamson has been compared to that of Lebron James by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. The Cavaliers were 17-65 the previous season and not only were they getting a home-grown son, they were getting a player most suspected would help the franchise rise. And rise it did.
In New Orleans, Williamson joins a team basically starting from scratch. They were 33-49 last season, good enough for 13th in the Western Conference. But they rid themselves of their franchise star, Anthony Davis, in last week’s megadeal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Williamson will be dropped into that slot, in terms of performance and marketability. He will be one of the guys, but he will also sell the tickets, turn the Pelicans into a regular fixture on national television and eventually help them contend for the playoffs.
From the Pelicans home office, executive vice president David Griffin observed Thursday’s proceedings. He was in Cleveland during Lebron’s time there and has first-hand knowledge about how a transcendent talent can change the fortunes of a team.
“We are [beginning to] crescendo now,” Griffin said. “I think it is only going to continue to grow. Winning that moment [the Draft Lottery] was a watershed moment for us as a franchise.”
The city has been waiting for this moment. ESPN reported that Williamson had already been spotted in town, dining at the nationally renown Commander’s Palace. Many fans watched the draft packed into bars wearing the team’s colors. The anticipation and excitement were palpable.
Things got even more exciting when Griffin dealt the No. 4 pick he acquired in the Lakers deal for Atlanta’s No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks. They also sent Solomon Hill to the Hawks to create more cap space. ESPN estimates they now have $31 million to use to further grow the team.
Interestingly, Griffin said one of the first things he did with the basketball staff was ask it why they should take Williamson. He just wanted to hear what everyone had to say about it.
And one of the biggest points Griffin stressed on Thursday was Williamson will be brought along slowly.
“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin said. “Zion is going to be learning how to win at a really high level. At some point, if there is a time that the baton gets passed in terms of who is expected to carry us to win games, it will. That is not now.
“Let Zion be that kid. Don’t write this like he is here to save this franchise. He is not. He is here to join this family.”
Still, we all know Williamson was the star in college basketball last season. Just a freshman, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks and shot 68 percent from the field.
Only 10 of the 53 players taken first overall in the NBA Draft have ever helped their teams win a league championship – Lebron and Kyrie Irving with the Cavaliers are the latest example, adding their names to Kareem, Magic, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
“I don’t think it’s feelings I can really describe,” Williamson said. “You know, as a little kid you say you want to go to the NBA. People basically say, you’ve got to have a Plan B because the chances of doing it is just little to none. For me to be selected No. 1, I mean, I can’t dream it no better than that.
“What excites me the most is the fact that they’re young and they’re close to my age so they can help me a lot more, like how to deal with this transition. I think we can build something over there.”
Along with the Williamson pick, the draft went as expected for the first three picks. Memphis took Murray State’s Ja Morant, the Knicks selected Duke’s RJ Barrett third.
“It’s been crazy,” Morant said. “Obviously a wild moment for me, coming from my story, what I’ve been through to get to this point. I’m just very excited to be able to accomplish my dream.”
Barrett will join a team that not only had the worst record in the league last season, but owns the worst cumulative mark over the last two decades. He scored the fifth most points (860) of any freshman in NCAA history.
But in 10 years, it will be the selection of Williamson that will define this draft and no doubt determine how successful the Pelican franchise will be.
“Let’s dance,” Williamson said.