One question each NBA team answered on Draft Night and one question they still face heading into Free Agency- Part 1: Teams Drafting #1-7

Photo: Julio Cortez (AP)

Thursday night’s draft signaled the beginning of a new NBA season. It’s a promising time because your top prospect has yet to be labeled a bust and your team still has dreams of hitting it big in free agency. Some things were clarified during the draft, but plenty of uncertainty remains. Each team walked out of the draft with at least one question answered. And they’ll enter the summer trying to answer one more.

New Orleans Pelicans

  • #1 Zion Williamson
  • #8 Jaxson Hayes
  • #17 Nickeil Alexander-Walker
  • #35 Marcos Louzada Silva

What was solved: Are the Pelicans going to be Zion’s one-man show?

It’s fair to say the Pelicans wasted years of Anthony Davis by surrounding him with insufficient talent. The new Pelicans General Manager, David Griffin, intends on not repeating history. On draft night and the days leading up to it, New Orleans accumulated great talent to fit around Zion. When asked about the players his team received in the Davis trade, Coach Alvin Gentry responded “that’s a haul, folks.” He’s right. Point guard Lonzo Ball is a perfect fit next to Zion and he’ll excel running an offense full of fast and athletic players. Brandon Ingram didn’t develop as quickly as the Lakers imagined, but he’s still just 21 years old and I believe we’re actually going to see the breakout season we’ve been waiting for from him. In the Lakers trade, the Pelicans also acquired the #4 pick in the draft, which Griffin parlayed into the #8 and #17 picks.

Griffin shouldn’t get much credit for making an obvious Zion pick, but he made great decisions with Hayes and Alexander-Walker. Hayes is raw, but his athleticism and defensive instincts are already high. Alexander-Walker will provide some much needed floor spacing as he is already a solid spot-up 3-point shooter. With a supporting cast like this, there aren’t too many former #1 picks who were drafted onto a better team than Zion was. On draft night, the Pelicans learned that Zion may be the team’s centerpiece, but that he won’t be their only piece.

What needs to be resolved: Is this team ready to win now?

The Pelicans have repeatedly said they have no expectations for this team, but I don’t envision them in rebuilding mode. They already have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs next season, so the question is whether Griffin decides to add some win-now veterans in free agency. His team projects to have about $30 million in cap space which is enough to add All-star level talent.

The team could look to resign Julius Randle, who had a career year this past season, averaging 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds. Brook Lopez is a floor spacer who would open up the paint for Zion. Another option is Bojan Bogdanovic who scored 18.0 PPG while shooting 42.5% from 3-point range this season. Perhaps the biggest indication that the team believes they are ready to compete is their reported interest in 33 year-old Al Horford.

This summer, New Orleans is going to show us just how much confidence they have in their team. If they stand pat, then they believe they are a few years away from really competing. But if they add a pricey veteran, then it’s a signal that the era of Zion has already arrived.

Memphis Grizzlies

  • #2 Ja Morant
  • #21 Brandon Clarke

What was solved: Is the “Grit and Grind” era over?

For the last decade, the Grizzlies’ “Grit and Grind” has been the franchise’s identity. Tough, hard-nosed, defensive, and physical are just a few words that describe Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol. But on draft night, Memphis said goodbye to that era of their history. The new young core of Morant, Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to play a different brand of basketball. 

This trio is as athletic as you’ll find and there’s no doubt they’re going to push the pace each game. This past season, the team finished 22nd in pace of play. That ranking is bound to go up next season. When the Grizzlies traded Conley and drafted Morant, they ushered in a new era of basketball in Memphis.

What needs to be resolved: What happens if Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t resign?

When the 27 year-old big man declined his $17.6 million option for next season, it put Memphis in an uncertain state. After being acquired from the Raptors in February, Valanciunas put up a very respectable 19.9 PPG and  10.7 RPG. But Valanciunas just wants to win and after trading Conley, Memphis won’t be doing too much of that. If Valanciunas doesn’t return to the Grizzlies, then the team will look to free agency for his replacement. Willie Cauley-Stein, Bobby Portis, or Kevon Looney are a few solid options, but none have the offensive skill of Valanciunas.

One positive of Valanciunas opting-out is that the Grizz can sign a cheaper replacement and acquire more cap space than their projected $10-15 million. That space could be used to add a much-needed wing player. Whichever way the Valanciunas situation plays out, Memphis will have a big decision to make this summer.

New York Knicks

  • #3 RJ Barrett
  • #47 Ignas Brazdeikis

What was solved: Will they sell the future to win now?

A couple weeks ago, it seemed like a real possibility that the Knicks could trade the #3 pick for an asset with a more immediate return. Trading the rights to RJ Barrett for an established star like Anthony Davis may have been the correct decision if New York was about to sign a healthy Durant and Kyrie Irving. However, as it currently stands, the team has poor free agency prospects. It doesn’t seem like they’re about to catapult into “win now” mode, so the Knicks are better off rebuilding with Barrett. The team has virtually no other assets and needs to prepare for the possibility that this summer leaves them without a superstar.

If the Knicks don’t land a top-tier free agent, then they can still salvage the summer because they drafted Barrett. Signing a few young, second-tier free agents to grow with Barrett is a solid plan for the future. 24 year-old Julius Randle and 23 year-old D’Angelo Russell would be possible fits. On draft night, the Knicks realized that keeping RJ Barrett was the safest bet for their future.

What needs to be resolved: Is Kevin Durant still #1 on their wish list?

New York has been looking forward to this summer for two years. Just waiting for KD. But the next time Durant plays in an NBA game, he will be 32 and fresh off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Is this really the franchise’s savior? If they do still sign Durant, then it’s going to be difficult to convince another max free agent to sign to the team while Durant sits for a year. And waiting till next summer isn’t a great option because the 2020 free agent class projects to be very underwhelming. The Knicks have to decide whether Durant is still their man or if they’re better off pursuing a couple second-tier free agents. If they wait around for Durant, then New York could wind up with nothing.

Atlanta Hawks

  • #4 De’Andre Hunter 
  • #10 Cam Reddish
  • #34 Bruno Fernando

What was solved: Who are the next weapons to surround Trae Young?

After a stellar second half to his rookie season, it’s already clear that Trae Young is the centerpiece of the Hawks’ rebuild. He’s horrendous on defense–the worst by ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus–but his star shines bright on offense. Atlanta entered draft night as a nice story, but because of the weapons they were able to add, they’ve become a bona fide threat.

Hunter, Reddish, and Fernando will join a young core featuring Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins. Hunter brings an ACC Defensive Player of the Year pedigree that will help compensate for Young, but Hunter is also a talented offensive player. He and Cam Reddish are both excellent 3-point shooters and are used to playing without the ball in their hands. Their off-the-ball work and floor spacing are going to open up driving lanes and make room for big bodies like Collins and Fernando. After draft night, it has become clear who is going to help Young.

What needs to be resolved: Can they acquire a productive veteran in free agency?

All due respect to Vince Carter, the Hawks need more than him to bring this young core out of the rebuilding phase and into the playoffs. Atlanta isn’t a main attraction for free agents, but the Hawks have enough cap space to make a splash this summer. Long shots like Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton would be great, but even adding some second-tier free agents like Malcolm Brogdon or Rodney Hood would help this team.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • #5 Darius Garland
  • #26 Dylan Windler
  • #30 Kevin Porter Jr.

What was solved: Do they think John Beilein can fix Kevin Porter Jr.?

The verdict on the result is still out, but the Cavs clearly think they can fix Porter. He is an immensely talented wing, but disciplinary issues and questions about his effort and his coachability caused him to tumble down the draft board. That kind of attitude won’t fly with new head coach John Beilein, who is known for demanding the most of his players. If there is any coach in the league who can tap into Porter’s potential, it may be Beilein. If the Cavs hit on Porter, then the team could have the beginning of a great young core.

What needs to be resolved: Will a backcourt of Garland and Collin Sexton work?

If you ask Sexton, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. He thinks he and his new back court mate will be the next Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Still, it’s an odd move drafting point guards with back-to-back top 10 picks when your team is deficient in so many other areas. The Cavs are banking on a dynamic backcourt to win them games, but we’ll have to see if the styles of Garland and Sexton mesh.

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • #6 Jarrett Culver
  • #43 Jaylen Nowell

What was solved: Who is the Robin to Karl Anthony Towns’ Batman?

By trading up to #6, Minnesota demonstrated confidence that Jarrett Culver can be what Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler never were: KAT’s partner. Whether he lives up to that billing remains to be seen, but by jumping up to grab Culver, it’s clear the Wolves believe they can build around this duo. Culver was one of the most versatile players in the country when he averaged 18.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in his final year at Texas Tech. On offense, he’s good at everything, but not great at any one skill. He’s solid at creating offense as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, where he got 26.1% of his offensive possessions. The Culver-Towns pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop should be devastating to opposing defenses in the future. Culver doesn’t have a great outside shot yet, but since Towns frequently plays out by the 3-point line, Culver should have plenty of driving opportunities.

What needs to be resolved: Can they make any moves in free agency?

The Wolves are projected to have zero free cap space this summer. Nonetheless, reports indicate that they may do some serious tinkering and enter the discussion for D’Angelo Russell. If it happened, then Towns would finally play with a great pick and roll  point guard. Last season, Russell scored the 5th most PPG on the pick-and-roll. Russell is the free agency long shot; a more realistic option is a player like Ricky Rubio. This past season, the Wolves were directionless. Moving up and grabbing Culver in the draft was a good start to the summer, but filling the void at the point guard position is critically important.

Chicago Bulls

  • #7 Coby White
  • #38 Daniel Gafford

What was solved: Who’s the point guard?

When the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves two years ago, they hoped they were getting a franchise point guard in Kris Dunn, the #5 pick in 2016. They didn’t. Instead, they got a player who has shown flashes, but mostly disappointed. After the draft, Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson was asked about Dunn’s future with the team; he said that if Dunn “comes into training camp in great shape and ready to roll, he has every chance to earn any spot he wants — just like any of our guys do.”

Paxson can try to downplay it, but it’s clear that the Bulls came into the draft looking for a franchise point guard. They had eyes for either Darius Garland or Coby White. Getting White has solved Chicago’s point guard problem and it gives them a young core with solid potential. White will be part of a core that features Zach Lavine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

What needs to be resolved: Should they try to make a big move in free agency?

Although Chicago could conceivably open up a max slot, there hasn’t been many rumors about who they are targeting this summer. Malcolm Brogdon was an option, but after drafting White, he doesn’t make as much sense. The Bulls had the youngest team this year (24.8 years) so adding a veteran presence to a promising core make sense in more ways than one.

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