PHOTO by MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY of THE VARSITY BLUES

While NBA playoff teams are battling it out for the ultimate prize — an NBA championship — less fortunate teams will have the opportunity to turn their franchise around. The NBA Draft Lottery, which determines the draft order of teams who missed the playoffs last year, occurred on May 14. Teams that have spent months, if not years, losing basketball games will find out if their losses pay off by getting the chance to draft a transformative prospect.

In previous years, the NBA teams with the worst record had a 25 per cent chance at the top pick in the draft. However, this year’s rule changes have made it so each of the NBA’s three worst teams — the New York Knicks, the Phoenix Suns, and the Cleveland Cavaliers — had an equal 14 per cent chance of picking first overall at the NBA Draft. Despite the odds, the number one overall pick went to the New Orleans Pelicans, who only had a six per cent chance of getting the first choice. 

This draft class has three prospects that project to be a cut above the rest. Zion Williamson, a freshman forward from Duke University; Toronto native RJ Barrett, a freshman guard and forward from Duke University; and Ja Morant, a sophomore guard from Murray State University. These players will most likely make up the top three of the NBA draft on June 20.

Zion Williamson

If you have anything more than a passing interest in basketball, you’ve most likely heard of Williamson. This year, Williamson entered Duke as ESPN’s second-ranked prospect in the collegiate system — though already famous from the viral clips of his high school dominance that circulated on House of Highlights and other platforms — and emerged as the rare prospect whose internet notoriety was not only earned, but was somehow understated.

His unbelievable athleticism allows him to be a two-way force, with the ability to block seemingly uncontested shots on one end and to throw down ridiculous cross-country dunks on the other. Add that to a six-foot-seven, 285-pound frame, and you get a combination of strength and agility unseen since the time of young Blake Griffin, only with better defence, passing, and a relatively clean injury history, save for one mild knee sprain in February.

His utter dominance at the college level, currently at 23 points, nine rebounds, and two assists per game while shooting 68 per cent from the floor, broke both the analytics and the eye test, as he boasted the second highest field goal percentage for a player who averaged over 20 points in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He did so with thunderous dunks and impressive post moves, making him an overwhelming force which made his opponents seem like middle schoolers scrimmaging against a hall-of-famer.

Of course, like any player, Williamson isn’t perfect. His lackluster percentages from the free-throw line and from the third line indicate that shooting may be a problem early in his NBA career, and his efficiency may regress from its historic levels once he begins playing against NBA players closer to his own size. Although his defensive highlights and tenacity are impressive, his instincts are still those of a 19-year-old. Discipline will go a long way into making sure he’s not gambling for blocked shots that may put him out of position. There’s also the question of what position he will play: with the height of a wing but the strength of a centre, he is best suited for playing at the fourth or fifth line next to a front-court player who can shoot. Although Williamson has some ball handling ability, his talent would ultimately be maximized playing alongside a passing point guard who can run the pick and roll with veteran efficiency.

RJ Barrett

Barrett is an excellent player, with the shot-making ability, playmaking skills, and defensive potential to become an all-star-caliber wing for years to come. Bursting onto the scene with his heroic performance against the American team at the 2017 International Basketball Federation U19 Basketball World Cup semifinal, Barrett’s tenacity and willingness to take over in big moments made him a point of interest for scouts around the NBA. Barrett entered college as the number one recruit in his class, and his fall to second place in this draft ranking after averaging nearly 22 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game is more of a testament to Williamson’s unwavering brilliance.

While Williamson used his season at Duke to show NBA teams that he was a can’t-miss prospect, Barrett’s fantastic but comparably underwhelming season highlighted the limitations of his game. Though projected to be an effective shooter from all areas of the floor, Barrett shot just under 31 per cent from the three point line this year, and made questionable shot choices at times. This, coupled with mediocre defence and frequent bouts of tunnel vision, prevented Barrett from playing like the versatile, playmaking scorer he is projected to be. His takeover mentality proved less endearing when it appeared that he was liable to shoot Duke out of games rather than defer to his talented teammates.

These problems would seem less glaring if Barrett wasn’t constantly compared to his friends and teammates, but there are holes that will nevertheless need to be addressed if he wishes to become an NBA star. Barrett has the tools and wherewithal to work on these flaws, and in a league dominated by versatile wings, a young star with his potential is an alluring pickup for any franchise. Barrett’s flaws were magnified by the excellence of Williamson, but a player with his projections would be very successful in the modern NBA.

Ja Morant

Few basketball fans saw the rise of Morant coming. After a solid, if not unremarkable freshman season at Murray State, point guard Morant exploded onto the scene during his sophomore season, scoring almost 25 points per game and leading the nation with ten assists per game. Blessed with a 44-inch vertical leap and NBA-ready court vision, his college highlights are filled with the explosive dunks and the wizard-like passes of Russell Westbrook or pre-injury John Wall. Whether as a guard, wing, or even a centre like Denver’s Nikola Jokic, having an excellent playmaker is the key for almost every successful team in the NBA. For teams on draft night, getting Morant would give them a player who has the ability to make his teammates better.

Though the 19-year-old made considerable strides in his offensive abilities during his second year at Murray State, he will need to apply that same work ethic to the defensive side of the ball if he ever wants to be an elite two-way athlete. As of now, even mediocrity would be a step in the right direction, as someone with Morant’s agility should be far better on defence than he presently is. With his 175-pound frame, he will also need to gain muscle in order to finish around the rim with the same force that he showed in college. If he is unable to get stronger, scoring will be a problem for Morant in the NBA, as his shooting mechanics are substandard and his percentages — 34 per cent on three-point shots over his two years at Murray State — suggest that tweaks need to be made for Morant to be an effective scorer at the next level.

Still, if Morant proves to be more in the vein of a pass-first point guard like Rajon Rondo, his playmaking should allow him to have a positive effect on any team that drafts him, and allow him to work on the other aspects of his game. Morant may have more holes than Williamson or Barrett, but a player that can run the offence and finish strong around the rim will benefit tanking teams in desperate need of a point guard.

The draft lottery has now revealed what order teams will be selecting in the 2019 NBA draft. Williamson is the obvious first choice for all three teams, with Barrett and Morant subsequently being chosen based off team needs. However the draft goes, these teams will hope that their selections will change the fortune of their franchises, so that by late spring next year, they are more concerned with playoff matchups than lottery odds.

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