Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: NBA teams want to draft Zion Williamson. The 18-year-old phenom forward from Duke is one of the faces of the basketball world. His potential is as high as his vertical. He could be a dominating force in the NBA with his incredible athleticism and imposing frame.
While shooting is a concern, everything else about Williamson’s game is advanced. His inside presence as a scorer, rebounder, and defender is phenomenal. He’s a nightmare in transition with or without the ball. He has the ability to handle the ball, drive to the hoop, and defend nearly every position. In short: he’s amazing.
Tank Race for Zion Williamson
Williamson is the overwhelming favorite to be selected first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. With several teams in position to land the first pick, let’s take a look at the three teams currently ahead in the Race for Zion: the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks began the Race for Zion on February 6th, 2018. Their All-Star forward, Kristaps Porzingis, threw down a ferocious dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. The play resulted in Porzingis tearing his ACL, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. At that point, New York shot out of the blocks with a plan to tank. Knowing Porzingis would need at least a year to recover, they made moves to bolster their roster of the future.
The Knicks came into the 2018 Draft with the 9th and 36th overall pick. They left with 18-year-old small forward out of Kentucky, Kevin Knox and 20-year-old center, Mitchell Robinson who worked out privately after losing his NCAA eligibility. They signed undrafted free agent guard Allonzo Trier to a 2-way deal soon after the draft. Then, they kept quiet in free agency, singing Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh, two busts, to single-season deals.
This Season’s Plan
This season, the Knicks were expected to develop and round out their young core around Porzingis. They did just that, minus the Porzingis part. The Knicks felt like Porzingis wasn’t fully invested in the Knicks future plans, and was consequently traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and two future first-round draft picks.
This move gave New York several assets as well as the cap space to sign two max contracts. They could look to sign star free agents such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving once July starts. In the meantime, they’ll focus on developing the several youngsters they have. Some young players like Robinson have exceeded expectations, while others such as Knox and Frank Ntilikina have not.
Acquiring Williamson will benefit New York regardless of what happens in the summer. If they strike out in free agency, Williamson becomes the new centerpiece of their young core. If they hit it out of the park, Williamson will almost certainly be good enough to help them win games right out of the gate. They have to keep a star happy at some point, and Williamson could be the first homegrown Knicks star since Patrick Ewing.
The Phoenix Suns don’t really have a set date for when they started the Race for Zion. Playing another year at the bottom of the conference is a tale as old as time (a.k.a. the last four years for the Suns). Since drafting Devin Booker, current franchise cornerstone in 2015, they’ve spent their time losing games and shuffling through coaches. They’ve had four different head coaches since that draft. Their draft record is even more atrocious.
In 2016, they had four draft picks. They used their highest pick (4th overall) on Dragan Bender, who averages 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. They traded their 13th overall pick (Georgios Papagiannis), 28th overall pick (Skal Labissiere), and other assets for the 8th overall pick, Marquese Chriss. He was more problematic than helpful, so Phoenix traded him to the Houston Rockets last summer. They used their second rounder (34th overall) on Tyler Ulis, who became good friends with Booker before being waived in the summer of 2018.
In 2017, the Suns again had the 4th overall pick. They drafted Josh Jackson, who has been unimpressive offensively while showing promise on defense. De’Aaron Fox, the following pick, has taken a huge step in his sophomore year and has the Sacramento Kings in the playoff race. With the 32nd overall pick, they drafted Davon Reed, who spent most of his time in the G-league, over Jordan Bell, who has cracked a rotation spot on the Golden State Warriors.
2018 was their best draft in recent memory. With the first overall pick, they drafted DeAndre Ayton. Although Luka Doncic and Trae Young (both picked afterwards) are the two best rookies this season, Ayton is a very productive player. Phoenix then traded the 16th pick and the Miami Heat‘s 2021 first rounder for Mikal Bridges, the 10th overall pick. Bridges has been productive on both ends of the floor. 32nd overall pick Elie Okobo has shown glimpses of promise.
Results of Their Tank
The Suns rebuild is a prime example of how tanking can lead a team nowhere. 2019 is the last year of Devin Booker’s rookie deal, and they haven’t gotten any closer to success over the last four seasons. Although finding Booker at 13 was a steal, no other pick has panned out as they have hoped. Ayton and Bridges still can, but it’s too early to tell with them.
Williamson would undoubtedly have the most potential out of anyone on the Suns. Even Booker, who has improved his game every year. He would be another piece to their young core, possibly the piece that can lead them out of the Western Conference’s basement. They’re far too familiar with that area.
The Cleveland Cavaliers technically began the Race for Zion in 2017. On August 30th of that year, they agreed to trade Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick. This seemingly grand slam of a trade turned out to be three straight outs for Cleveland, as the locker room grew toxic and Thomas never returned to his All-Star form.
The Cavs were able to flip Thomas, Crowder, and other players for a group of younger players. The locker room recovered, but the team stayed unimpressive around LeBron James. Cleveland trudged through the East on the way to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Warriors. This lead to James leaving Cleveland in free agency for the Los Angeles Lakers. None of the three parties have had much fun this season.
In Cleveland, almost everyone knew the Cavs wouldn’t be good this year. The only question was how bad they would be. The answer: a bottom three team in the league. They started the year 4-16 and have been a bottom feeder for the entire season.
To make matters worse for Cleveland, they don’t have a bounty of young players to start building around. Instead, they merely have a duo. Rookie Collin Sexton and second-year player Cedi Osman are two bright spots in this miserable campaign. Sexton’s efficiency has been spotty, but he’s shown to be an aggressive scorer that can shoot three-pointers as well. Osman improved drastically since last year and is a starter.
Aside from those two, the Cavs consist of role players and prospects from the G-league. They don’t have the makings of a true “young core” outside of Sexton and Osman. They made several trades that involve draft picks as they didn’t have any draft picks in 2016 or 2017. The only pick they had in 2018 was Brooklyn’s. They went all in on building a contending team and are now paying the price for it.
Adding Williamson will provide Cleveland with another generational athletic specimen with an offensive minded guard that wears number two. A tandem like that won a championship for the Cavs once before, and it could potentially lead them back there one day. Kevin Love is under contract until 2023, so he may be there for when the Cavs return to relevance. Will the sequel prove to be better than the original?
Who’s in the lead in the Race for Zion?
Sorry to be anticlimactic, but it’s a tie. The Knicks, Suns, and Cavs all have the same odds at the number one pick at 14 percent. This is due to the new lottery odds where no single team has great odds to land the first overall pick. The three discussed teams all have a 52 percent chance at a top-4 pick. In the past, the worst team in the league had a 64 percent chance at a top-3 pick.
The only upside to having the worst record is that you can only fall to the 5th pick at worst. The second worst record can fall back as far as the 6th pick; third worst could fall to 7th. So essentially, the only benefit to being the worst team is having the biggest cushion to fall back on if the odds aren’t in your favor. We won’t know who wins the Race for Zion until the draft lottery on May 14th.
Main Photo: DURHAM, NC – NOVEMBER 14: Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) goes for the dunk during the 1st half of the Duke Blue Devils game versus the Eastern Michigan Eagles on November 14, 2018, at Cameron Indoor Stadium (Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)