The first main event of the NBA offseason occurred last Thursday, as the 30 teams combined to select 60 new players in the 2019 NBA Draft.
It is too early to make sweeping conclusions about which teams fared well and which teams didn’t. That will need to wait a few more years. Based on what we know right now about the players and the teams that drafted them, we can still make educated predictions about how things will turn out.
With that in mind, let’s take an early look at a few of the best and worst first-round picks from last week.
Best Picks of the NBA Draft
Zion Williamson, No. 1 overall to the New Orleans Pelicans
Sometimes, the obvious pick is the best. The Pelicans didn’t overthink things at any point after they won lottery and decided to come away from the draft a much stronger team with the addition of Williamson.
The freshman forward from Duke is perhaps the most physically-gifted player to enter the league since LeBron James. He’s somehow able to get up high in the air for all sorts of dunks, layups, blocks and rebounds despite his thick frame of 6’7” and 285 pounds. While his jump shot is still coming around, his instincts are fantastic on both ends of the floor and he is very coordinated.
After the Anthony Davis trade and other smaller moves, the Pelicans now have a new, young core of Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and fellow rookie Jaxson Hayes. Outside shooting will be a major weakness for this group, but it has size, athleticism and basketball IQ in spades.
Sekou Doumbouya, No. 15 to the Detroit Pistons
Not many, if any, teams in the NBA are worse positioned for the future than the Pistons. They have a whopping $96 million of cap space tied up with Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway next year. All five players are likely either at the high point of their career or are on the decline, yet the Pistons are still an also-ran in the weaker Eastern Conference.
Because of this, it made sense for the Pistons to swing for the fences with Doumbouya. The forward from France is the youngest prospect in the draft with a lot of skill development to do. However, he already has an NBA body at 6’9” and 230 pounds along with the athleticism, defensive instincts and shooting mechanics that could make him a prototypical modern combo forward someday.
Detroit’s future doesn’t look bright, but if Doumbouya pans out perfectly, the Pistons have a much-needed young star to build around. If he plays poorly, at least he was only a 15th overall pick, and his poor play would actually help the team earn a higher draft pick to try again at drafting a young prospect.
Brandon Clarke, No. 21 to the Memphis Grizzlies
Clarke was a lottery talent in this year’s draft who definitely shouldn’t have fallen this far. Even though Clarke is 22 years old, he was the second-best player in college basketball this year, after only Zion Williamson. The combo forward has amazing athleticism at 6’8” and 215 pounds along with great defensive playmaking and strong offensive skills, especially off the ball.
Between Clarke and last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies can trot out a supremely versatile defensive frontcourt tandem that can also work well together on offense with their cutting abilities and decent shooting. Combine them with this year’s No. 2 overall pick, point guard Ja Morant (also a fantastic selection), and the Grizzlies have a young trio that will be very fun.
After years of squads laden with veterans and NBA journeymen, the Grizzlies now have an exciting, athletic core to build around. Clarke should be a big part of that.
Worst Picks of the NBA Draft
Darius Garland, No. 5 to the Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers drafted point guard Collin Sexton with the No. 8 overall draft pick last year. The Cavaliers drafted point guard Darius Garland with the No. 5 overall draft pick this year. Why? I’m not sure. Garland is very skilled and athletic, but he and Sexton don’t make sense together as the franchise’s building blocks.
Sexton and Garland are both ball-dominant, score-first small guards who struggle mightily to distribute the ball. Neither has the size or frame to defend wings. The Cavs can stagger their minutes, but if they really are the team’s two big rebuilding pieces, they will still end up playing a lot together. That’s just not the best configuration.
The best-case scenario for this duo could be them turning into an Eastern Conference version of the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Even that undersized, explosive backcourt with great coaching and a decent supporting cast hasn’t ever been a true title contender. That’s a best-case scenario, mind you.
Cameron Johnson, No. 11 overall to the Phoenix Suns
Looking at this pick in a vacuum, the Suns didn’t come out great. Johnson was considered a late first-round pick by many people. He is already 23 years old and doesn’t do much besides shoot three-pointers. That skill will help the Suns next to franchise cornerstones Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, but the team also could have used a well-rounded player to add to the core.
It gets worse when you consider the move Phoenix made to get to Johnson’s pick. The Suns originally had the No. 6 pick, but traded back to No. 11 and also picked up serviceable big man Dario Saric from the Minnesota Timberwolves. If they had stayed at No. 6, they could have picked up elite point guard prospect Coby White, who ended up going No. 7 to the Chicago Bulls. Point guard is definitely a position of need for the Suns.
Johnson very well could turn into a fine role player for the Suns, but his ceiling isn’t high and he plays a similar position to Saric. This decision is tough to justify.
Chuma Okeke, No. 16 overall to the Orlando Magic
The Magic were a pleasant surprise this season. Their defense was amazing during the second half of the campaign and the squad earned a playoff berth for the first time in seven years.
Moving forward, the team’s identity is most definitely as a defense-first team with a lot of athleticism. On paper, Okeke fits very well with that, as a well-built 6’8” forward. However, he is yet another Magic frontcourt who is a work in progress on offense. Orlando has enough players like that already, such as Wesley Iwundu, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba and Khem Birch.
Maybe the bigger issue is that Okeke tore his ACL during the NCAA Tournament. How will that affect his athleticism and development moving forward? Most people saw him as a fringe first-round pick after that injury, but there may be more pressure for him to produce early as a mid first-round pick.