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NBA draft winners and losers: Pelicans get things right while Suns crash and burn

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One of the most anticipated drafts in NBA history is in the books.

Zion Williamson is a New Orleans Pelican. The Los Angeles Lakers finally made a pick. And the Phoenix Suns are still doing Phoenix Suns things. It will take at least three years before someone can look back and give any sort of reasonable assessment of how this draft played out.

But some moves are obvious. And what’s a draft night without some instant analysis? So without further ado, here are the winners and losers from Thursday’s festivities.

New Orleans Pelicans — Winner

The Pelicans have taken the absolute best strategy after a painful breakup. They went out and found a hot new partner in Williamson. And they’re wisely using part of the haul they got from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Anthony Davis deal to build around their new superstar.

After starting the night with two-first round draft picks, they ended up making three when the Atlanta Hawks traded the Nos. 8, 17 and 35 picks to move up to the No. 4 pick New Orleans acquired in the Davis deal.

Nobody drafts Zion Williamson and comes up a loser on draft night. (Reuters)
Nobody drafts Zion Williamson and comes up a loser on draft night. (Reuters)

The Pelicans used the No. 8 pick on Texas’ Jaxson Hayes, an athletic 6-11 center who should immediately step in to Davis’ void and be an impact rim protector in the NBA. He’s raw offensively, but has upside. The Pelicans are in no hurry, and we know who’s getting the ball in New Orleans anyway.

They used the No. 17 pick on Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a 6-5 scoring guard from Virginia Tech, who has a stroke to hit from NBA 3-point range and should space the floor for Williamson to do his thing in the lane.

So far, so good in this Pelicans rebuild.

Phoenix Suns — Loser

In April, the Suns were wrapping up a valiant tanking effort with dreams of Williamson running through their heads. On Thursday night, they selected Cameron Johnson with the fruits of those efforts.

Not so good.

The Suns got bad bounces in the lottery and ended up with the No. 6 pick. Rather than make the most of a suboptimal situation, they decided to writhe in it.

With a potential difference maker in Jarrett Culver sitting on the draft board, the Suns decided to trade back with the Minnesota Timberwolves to No. 11. They used the pick on UNC’s Johnson, a nice 6-9 23-year-old shooter with minimal upside and defensive and athletic liabilities.

And what was the incentive in the trade to move back? Dario Saric — a 6-10 forward who does pretty much exactly the same thing Johnson does.

Orlando Magic — Winner

The Magic pulled the anti-Suns, drafting a player with star potential outside of the lottery. Orlando used the No. 16 pick on 6-8 Auburn forward Chuma Okeke, a player who was locked into the lottery before an ACL tear against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament ended his college career. At his best, he’s a skilled, athletic scorer and a high-level defender with tools that translate to the NBA.

His ACL tear moved him well down on some draft boards. But ACL tears aren’t the long-term devastating injuries they used to be. Okeke’s upside is big. These are the kinds of gambles winners make.

Danny Ainge's big plans in Boston are falling apart. (Getty)
Danny Ainge's big plans in Boston are falling apart. (Getty)

Boston Celtics — Loser

It’s becoming increasingly clear that general manager Danny Ainge’s stockpile of assets and draft picks isn’t going to pay off with immediate returns. Last season’s disaster has morphed into a brutal offseason with a failed bid for Anthony Davis and the seemingly inevitable departure of Kyrie Irving. Al Horford’s walking out the door, and Boston’s sitting on a mountain of cap space that no elite free agent appears to be interested in.

Instead of using their first-round draft pick in a trade to acquire win-now talent, the Celtics took 6-6 Indiana shooting guard Romeo Langford. He’s a good athlete and an inefficient scorer with room to develop. He could turn out to be a fine NBA player.

But adding a young player with upside is not the vision the Celtics had in mind for 2019 and beyond.

Duke basketball — Winner

They may not have made the Final Four. But Williamson, RJ Barrett (No. 3 pick, New York Knicks) and Cam Reddish (No. 10 pick, Hawks) all made the lottery. And that adds up to another strong sales pitch for Mike Krzyzewski as he looks to add to his list of No. 1 recruiting classes.

Nassir Little had a rough night at the NBA draft but could end up in the winner's column in the long run. (Reuters)
Nassir Little had a rough night at the NBA draft but could end up in the winner's column in the long run. (Reuters)

Nassir Little — Loser

This is a temporary designation. The North Carolina product was the guy in the green room that cameras kept their focus on as the draft moved into the late teens and 20s. The McDonald’s All-American Game MVP never found his footing in Chapel Hill and spent most of his time at UNC coming off the bench. He appeared to be paying for those struggles on draft night.

An explosive 6-6, 225-pound athlete with tools that scream NBA star, Little was the expected lottery pick who fell to the late first round after a disappointing freshman season that saw him struggle to score. But the upside is there, and the Portland Trail Blazers may have gotten a steal at No. 25.

Minnesota Timberwolves — Winner

Jimmy Butler made his stay in Minnesota untenable last offseason, eventually forcing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Timberwolves may have drafted his replacement in Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver while using an asset from the Butler trade to do so.

Minnesota tacked on Dario Saric to convince the Suns to swap the No. 6 pick for the No. 11 pick. Now the Timberwolves have an athletic, versatile scorer on the wing with high-level defensive skills.

Sounds familiar.

The Lakers' No. 4 draft pick on Thursday was a key piece in landing Anthony Davis. (Reuters)
The Lakers' No. 4 draft pick on Thursday was a key piece in landing Anthony Davis. (Reuters)

Los Angeles Lakers — Winner

Wait, the Lakers didn’t do anything noteworthy on draft night, right? Well, yeah. But the No. 4 pick they dealt to the Pelicans was a key cog in the deal that landed them Anthony Davis and transformed the team from historic laughing stock to odds-on NBA title favorites. Despite that fact that management remains incompetent.

So while the selection of Iowa State guard Talen Horton-Tucker in the second round may not register, the fact that the Lakers didn’t make a splash on draft night is excellent news for fans of the purple and gold.

Bol Bol - Loser

First, there was this suit.

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Then, there was the wait. Long after Little’s painful stay in the green room ended at pick No. 25, Bol remained, watching in his spiderweb-adorned tuxedo. It was an awkward scene.

At pick No. 44, the Denver Nuggets ended the former Oregon center’s long wait with a pick they acquired from the Miami Heat.

Bol’s freshman year at Oregon was cut short with foot surgery that required two screws to be inserted. His potential had some thinking lottery before the foot problems.

But a 7-2 center with screws in his foot raises a multitude of red flags, leaving the Nuggets willing to risk a late pick on his upside.

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