NEW YORK • The NBA couldn't have asked for a better draft lead-in than the Anthony Davis blockbuster trade. While the first wave of headlines rightfully belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers, the other side of the trade is just as juicy.
New Orleans Pelicans executive David Griffin crafted a dream return featuring multiple prospects, three first-round picks and future pick swap rights to boot. From that wide-ranging package, the most intriguing piece in the short term is the Lakers' 2019 No. 4 pick. With it, Griffin can either handpick a young running mate for Zion Williamson, this year's consensus No. 1 pick, or spin it forward as part of another trade. Either way, all eyes will be on the Pelicans this week as they lay crucial groundwork on their path to becoming a rising power in the West.
With Thursday's draft inching closer, here's an updated forecast of the 14 lottery picks.
1. New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Duke
Williamson is one of the Davis trade's biggest winners: The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Duke forward arrives as the undisputed face of the franchise, and his path to stardom received a major kick-start thanks to Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and the Lakers' many draft assets. Top picks like Davis, Kevin Durant and LeBron James typically land on barren rosters as rookies, but Williamson's Pelicans should be both competitive and highly entertaining next season.
Griffin and company smoothly played the Davis trade dilemma. In the hours after the draft lottery, the Pelicans talked up the prospect of Davis and Williamson playing together while downplaying the likelihood of a trade to the Lakers. After realizing Davis was unmoved by their lottery luck, the Pelicans transitioned back into trade mode and reengaged with the Lakers. The deal came at the exact right moment, maximizing the return value and paving the way for Williamson's clean entry. The animosity and dysfunction of Dell Demps' final days as general manager are already distant memories.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Murray State
Morant has remain entrenched as the consensus second selection throughout the pre-draft period, an impressive feat considering he underwent minor knee surgery shortly after the lottery drawing. The 6-foot-3 guard projects as a hybrid playmaker capable of creating his own offense and running an efficient attack. His skill and athleticism, coupled with Jaren Jackson Jr.'s "unicorn" game, gives Memphis a tremendous base to build out its roster during a transition period.
The arrival of Morant may coincide with the departure of longtime point guard Mike Conley Jr., whose name continues to appear in trade rumors. Moving Conley would allow the Grizzlies to give the keys to Morant from Day 1 and set them up for significant cap flexibility next summer. Memphis must trade its first-round pick to the Boston Celtics if it lands outside the top six next season, so it should consider taking its lumps next season by leaning heavily on its young prospects. Why not fully embrace Morant's learning curve and angle to keep that pick?
3. New York Knicks: RJ Barrett, Duke
Kevin Durant's devastating Achilles injury surely rocked New York, which spent all season preparing for his free agency. Even if they do land the all-star forward, the Knicks are now stuck waiting for another season.
Barrett looks like one of the few winners in this unexpected purgatory, as the 19-year-old scoring-minded wing needs the ball in his hands and an organization willing to be patient. Durant's immediate availability would have threatened him on both counts, possibly turning him into trade bait. Instead, the 6-foot-7 Canadian should enjoy a developmental rookie season in New York free from pressure to win now.
4. New Orleans Pelicans (via Los Angeles Lakers): Darius Garland, Vanderbilt
There are some good reasons for the Pelicans to go a different direction than Garland. New Orleans has been on a quest for wing talent for years, and Jarrett Culver, De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should all be available at four. Garland is a point guard who missed most of his freshman season with a knee injury, and the Pelicans already have two point guards - Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball - with extensive injury histories. Plus, Garland is represented by Klutch Sports, the agency that engineered Davis' acrimonious trade request and exit.
However, there are plenty of good reasons to draft Garland too. The 6-foot-3 guard is already an advanced shooter with deep range and the ability to pull up off the dribble. His presence should immediately stretch defenses vertically, a key ingredient to maximizing Williamson's utility in the half-court. Given the importance of 3-point shooting playmakers in the modern NBA, it's conceivable that Garland could join Williamson as one of the two most valuable players from this class. If that's the case, why agonize over short-term fit issues with Ball and Holiday?
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
New Cavaliers coach John Beilein got an up-close view of Culver in March, when Texas Tech eliminated Beilein's Michigan Wolverines from the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-6 wing happened to tally a game-high 22 points that night, but his appeal to Beilein and the Cavaliers goes far beyond his progress as a scoring and playmaking forward.
Culver does a little bit of everything - creating with the ball in his hands, initiating the offense, shooting off the dribble, capably defending multiple positions - with no maintenance required. A favorite among his older teammates at Texas Tech, the preacher's son is an ideal building block for a Cavaliers organization that desperately needs to establish a winning culture.
6. Phoenix Suns: De'Andre Hunter, Virginia
Time flies: Devin Booker is already entering year five. The urgency to show progress around its franchise guard could influence the Suns' approach to this pick. Would they trade it for a capable veteran point guard? Should they hope New Orleans passes on Garland so that he falls into their lap? Would they be willing to invest it in Coby White, the best remaining point guard, knowing that the 19-year-old will need a year or two to develop? If NBA-readiness drives Phoenix's thinking, the 21-year-old Hunter makes sense. He would plug in as a 3-and-D wing, which has long been a position of need for Phoenix.
7. Chicago Bulls: Coby White, UNC
The Bulls' drop to the seventh spot on draft night was extremely costly, as Morant and Garland were dream targets to fill their gigantic hole at point guard. Now, Chicago must decide whether it should barter its pick for an established floor general, roll the dice on White, or take one of the many wings that fall in this range. White, likely the best available lead guard, would add pop to a Chicago offense that ranked 29th last year.
8. Atlanta Hawks: Sekou Doumbouya, Limoges
Doumbouya's length, activity and physique leap off the screen in the highlight reels from his season playing professionally in France. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has made his name in player development, and the 18-year-old Doumbouya is the type of international prospect who could outplay his draft position if he develops the feel to match his physical tools. There's a positional fit here too: Atlanta can use a long and active 6-foot-9 forward to complement its core of Trae Young and John Collins. Unsurprisingly, his arrival has been met with Pascal Siakam comparisons.
9. Washington Wizards: Cam Reddish, Duke
The Wizards somehow still haven't hired a replacement for former president Ernie Grunfeld, a nondevelopment that hangs over this pick. Will Washington's decision-makers select from a position of empowerment or self-preservation? A cynic would conclude that the polarizing Reddish makes a lot of sense: he fills a wing hole created by the Otto Porter trade, he was a highly touted high school prospect, he hails from an NCAA blue blood, and his size and comfort with the ball make him "look the part" of a future NBA star. In other words, he's easy to sell.
10. Atlanta Hawks (from Dallas Mavericks): Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Outside of John Collins, the Hawks' front line options are underwhelming: Dewayne Dedmon will soon be a free agent, and Alex Len, who enjoyed a bit of a breakthrough last season, still isn't anything to write home about. The 6-foot-11 Hayes fits perfectly as a pick-and-roll finishing partner for Trae Young and as an agile rim-protector.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
New team president Gersson Rosas needs a long-term answer at point guard, more shot creation on the wings, and plenty of help inside. Clarke, who will turn 23 before the start of the 2019-20 season, would provide immediate assistance on that last front. The 6-foot-8 forward's ultraefficient finishing, shot-blocking ability and high energy level make him an intriguing complement to franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns.
12. Charlotte Hornets: Nassir Little, UNC
The Hornets need to be in star-hunting mode, regardless of whether franchise point guard Kemba Walker re-signs. Finding a gem this late in the lottery is a tough proposition, so a report that indicated they are trying to trade up makes a lot of sense. If those plans fail to materialize, Little is a former blue-chip prep prospect with clear upside and local ties. Talent evaluators can easily argue that the 6-foot-6 wing's forgettable freshman season at UNC wasn't representative of his long-term abilities.
13. Miami Heat: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Given his natural strength, versatility and potential to extend his shooting range out to the three-point line, it's quite possible Hachimura doesn't last until the 13th pick. If he does, the 6-foot-8 Japanese national team player would plug right into Miami's relentless culture. Hachimura will require some grooming because he came late to basketball, but his steady progress into an all-American at Gonzaga should provide comfort to the team that decides to take on the challenge.
14. Boston Celtics (from Sacramento Kings): P.J. Washington, Kentucky
Holding three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20, and 22) and staring at a possible identity crisis if Kyrie Irving leaves as a free agent, the Celtics are one of the NBA's most combustible teams right now. Anything can, and should, be on the table now that their Anthony Davis dream is dead. If this pick isn't traded, the 6-foot-8 Washington covers ground on defense and is comfortable working both inside and outside on offense - key attributes for Boston big men in recent years.