CHICAGO — The first three balls to emerge from the Smartplay lottery machine, a unique glass contraption designed solely for the annual NBA Draft Lottery, read 14, 5 and 8. There are 14 balls submitted into the device — the same tally of representatives from teams that failed to make the postseason, who watched those tiny, white spheres rattle around the clear basin with bated breath. Each May, the final, fourth pingpong ball to emerge from the apparatus is what truly declares the winner of the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.
On Tuesday evening, two stories below and one hour before the televised ESPN broadcast from a gigantic ballroom at McCormick Place, that last ball rose to the surface and revealed the destination for Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 French phenom whom NBA personnel are widely convinced is the greatest prospect to enter the league since LeBron James, a talent capable of uplifting a franchise for two decades.
It was nearly Washington. The Wizards entered the evening with the eighth-best odds and a 6.7% chance at the top selection and could have landed Wembanyama if a 7, 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 spouted from the Smartplay machine. The Orlando Magic needed the No. 5 ball to pop out. Alas, it was a 2, and Clay Allen, the general counsel for the Houston Rockets who has appeared in the sequestered drawing room three times, leaned over to Spurs general manager Brian Wright, sitting to his left, and tapped the lucky executive on the shoulder, saying in defeat, “That’s you.”
Buzz Peterson, the Charlotte Hornets general manager, extended a congratulatory hand, but Wright remained stone-faced. He would later politely refuse to reveal the good luck charms that helped deliver Wembanyama to the franchise that once landed Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick, but Wright did reveal he had one charmed item on his person and another waiting at home.
“Victor’s unique,” Wright said from the back room. “He’s a big, but he’s not a big.” There are few 7-footers, after all, who can handle, pass and shoot as well as elite guards on the perimeter. The rarities, like Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid, have been in a heated race for MVP over the past three seasons. “People call him a unicorn, an alien,” Wright said, and for good reason. Wembanyama’s height dwarfs those All-Star giants.
Peterson had a small, wooden cross in his pocket, a long-ago gift from his mother, Barbara, who told him to carry the memento in his pocket when Peterson stormed the sidelines during his two decades of college coaching. Disaster, though, almost struck the Charlotte executive. When Peterson arrived in Chicago on Saturday, he realized he’d left the cross back at home on his bathroom vanity. And so Peterson phoned his son-in-law, Jackson Simmons, who works in the Hornets’ video room, to bring the cross to Kathryn Karakus, Charlotte’s senior director of basketball operations, who hand delivered the important item to Peterson when she joined the week of action here for the NBA Draft Combine. Who knows if that scramble tempted fate, but the combination 7-3-5-4 sprung from the glass, and Peterson’s Hornets had claimed the second overall pick in the draft.
Portland Trail Blazers assistant general manager Sergi Oliva had nothing special on his person. “I’m not superstitious,” Oliva said. The only things tucked inside his suit jacket pocket were two copies of his hotel room key. The Blazers, perhaps, had the most at stake of any franchise mired in the Wembanyama sweepstakes, with a common refrain among drawing room representatives being their disinterest in being back next year. And Portland was the only team among clubs with the top-five-best odds of getting the No. 1 pick that already rosters a bona fide franchise talent in Damian Lillard. So for the Blazers to jump to third in a draft class that’s believed to include a consensus top three of prospects in Wembanyama, G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson and Alabama forward Brandon Miller presents Portland with a massive asset entering what could be an offseason rife with trade activity.
There are other teams rival executives are already pinning as potential trade candidates. Dallas avoided disaster by landing its top-10 protected pick at the No. 10 spot, and the Mavericks are certainly expected to explore the market for that selection in hopes of adding to their All-Star backcourt of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, the latter of which will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Indiana, which came away with the No. 7 pick, also holds picks Nos. 26 and 29, which the Pacers already explored trading for veteran talent before the February trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Sacramento, down at No. 24, is another team to monitor, sources said, for first-round trade possibilities.
The Blazers hold the hottest commodity. Charlotte jumping to the second pick, up from the fourth-best odds, brings an interesting dilemma and what some league personnel consider a suboptimal fit between Henderson and incumbent All-Star guard LaMelo Ball. That could very well lead the Hornets to choose Miller instead, which could allow Portland to hold a bidding war for teams hoping to acquire Henderson’s services. Or it could allow the Blazers to take one of Henderson or Miller, and gauge the trade value of other pieces on Portland’s roster.
“We’re a team that’s trying to win and trying to maximize Damian’s timeline. This was an important night for us,” Portland general manager Joe Cronin told Yahoo Sports. “Front offices around the league think highly of this draft, so you would think that a lot of teams that were sitting [on stage] tonight will be getting a lot of calls from teams trying to move up and maneuver.”
The fourth and last lottery drawing brought just as much drama in the sequestered area as the grand prize. That next combination was 13-14-1-11 — another winning result for the Spurs — which was therefore scratched from the record and sparked another drawing.
“What’s your lucky charm?” Pacers president Kevin Pritchard asked Wright from his second-row seat on the dais. Too bad we’ll never know.
The second drawing for the fourth pick brought 3-4-9-7, which was Charlotte, so that was also scrubbed from history. A third drawing was needed to determine the fourth pick, and San Antonio won yet again, this time with a sequence of 2-12-7-3. One league executive in the drawing room likened the repeated drawings to a game heading to quadruple overtime.
Finally, on the fourth try for the fourth pick, the Smartplay machine produced 7-14-4-1, awarding the selection to the Rockets and sending the Pistons tumbling to fifth after beginning the night with as good a chance as any team to claim the top prize. Detroit did claim the No. 1 pick in 2021, and the No. 5 selection in this year’s draft will position the Pistons to potentially select one of Ausar or Amen Thompson. The identical twins spent the last two years playing with Overtime Elite, then coached by Kevin Ollie, who coincidentally is widely considered the favorite of Detroit general manager Troy Weaver among the three finalists for the Pistons’ vacant head coaching, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
At present, there are four other openings on benches across the league, in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto. The Wizards are still amid a clandestine search for a chief executive. A new collective bargaining agreement has introduced a slew of different cap restrictions and challenges for roster construction. There is a sentiment among league personnel in Chicago this upcoming offseason will be busy with player movement and franchise-altering transactions. The draft order taking shape is just the first domino of many still to fall.