Let’s just own this up front: Picking the winners and losers from a draft the night it happens is a fool’s errand. If we were doing this right, tonight we’d be picking the winners and losers of the 2016 NBA Draft, because it takes about that long to get a real sense of how teams did. (Denver with Jamal Murray, Toronto with Pascal Siakam, and the Bucks with Malcolm Brogdon nailed it; Philly did fine with Ben Simmons at No. 1, but Phoenix took Dragan Bender at No. 4 and misfired.)
That, however, is not the instant gratification world we live in.
So here are our winners and losers from the 2019 NBA Draft.
The New Orleans Pelicans. Thanks, Captain Obvious. The Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery, so when the draft itself rolled around all they needed to do was not screw it up. They got it right and took Zion Williamson No. 1. That is a massive win. New Orleans gets the highest rated player in the draft since Anthony Davis, and the most marketable rookie probably since LeBron James. It may have been a no-brainer, it doesn’t make the night any less of a success.
As for the rest of their moves, David Griffin traded out of the No. 4 pick and turned it into the No. 8 pick (Jaxson Hayes), No. 17 pick (Nickeil Alexander-Walker), and the No. 35 pick (Marcos Louzada Silva of Brazil). There are some development projects in there, but we don’t need to see how they pan out to know the Pelicans still win because they drafted Zion Williamson.
The Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta moved up in the draft last year to get Trae Young, and a year later that seems a wise call. This year the Hawks moved up again, this time to the No. 4 pick to get De'Andre Hunter — the highest floor player in this draft whose first name doesn’t start with “Z.” Hunter is going to be a quality wing defender who can knock down shots and make plays on the perimeter, having a Trevor Ariza kind of impact. Put that with Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter, and you’ve got something to build on in the ATL. The Hawks also snapped up Duke’s Cam Reddish at No. 10, a player with All-Star level upside who should be able to thrive in the NBA with more space on the floor (at least that’s what his supporters say, Reddish needs to prove there’s not some Andrew Wiggins in him).
The Hawks were already League Pass favorites the second half of last season, this season they will be even more show-stopping with these pick ups.
The Phoenix Suns. They came into the draft with the No. 6 pick and a glaring need at point guard, plus they could use some more consistent wing play. Jarrett Culver was on the board at six and would have been a good fit next to Devin Booker. Coby White, the third highest rated point guard in this draft, was on the board. Instead, the Suns traded down in a deal with the Timberwolves, picking up Dario Saric — a nice stretch four but one who hits restricted free agency next summer and will be expensive to keep — and the No. 11 pick, which they used on Cameron Johnson, a good shooter out of North Carolina, but one who has hip issues and most teams had in the 20s on their boards. Earlier in the day, the Suns traded in-demand T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick to the Pacers for cash considerations.
So to recap: The Suns gave up Warren, didn’t take Culver, and surrendered the No. 32 pick for Cam Johnson and Dario Saric. Um… not good.
The Suns aren’t total losers because they got Ty Jerome at No. 24, a quality pickup at that spot, and maybe they get a good, veteran point guard in free agency. Still, their moves remain head scratching.
The Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are a bad, rebuilding team. It’s understandable in the wake of a title run and LeBron leaving, but that is their reality right now. They simply need more talent on the roster. That means they had one goal in this draft: Take the best player, the guy with the highest upside, regardless of position. The Cavaliers did that. At No. 5 they took Darius Garland, a player some teams had as high as third on their draft boards — and they did it despite the fact they had Collin Sexton on the roster. That’s how you draft, take the best players and sort it out later. Then they took high upside guys late in the first round: Dylan Windler out of Belmont at No. 28 (42.9 percent from three) and trading up to get Kevin Porter Jr. at No. 30. Maybe that pans out, maybe it doesn’t, but they were good gambles at that point in the draft on guys who could be steals that late.
Bol Bol. He was a winner in this sense: Not everybody can pull off that suit, but he did.
However, a 7’2″ skilled big man who captured the imaginations of fans — and who some teams might have taken late in the first round — fell all the way down the board to No. 44, when the Miami Heat took him. Then immediately traded him to Denver. He’s got a lot of potential, but two things scared teams off. First was the foot injury that required two screws be put in his foot — those kinds of injuries in big men scare teams. Second, and even a more significant factor, were serious concerns about his work ethic and how much he loves the game. Is he going to put in the work? Still, to see him fall and all the players taken ahead of him at the start of the second round — once the contracts are no longer guaranteed — was stunning. And awkward as he sat in the NBA’s Green Room, waiting.
R.J. Barrett. He desperately wanted to be a Knick. Now he is, New York took him No. 3. Barrett was leaning into it and the New York crowd all night. Good for him, Barrett has the potential to be an outstanding player in the NBA. He’s got the tools.
But be careful what you wish for… New York has chewed up and spit out a lot of good players.