We grade the young cores of some lottery teams and see how they measure up to the Knicks’ youthful collection of talent.
Despite the NBA being primarily a star-driven league, not every team is fortunate enough to have a LeBron James, a Kawhi Leonard, or a Giannis Antetokounmpo on their roster. These teams lacking star power tend to find themselves at the bottom of the standings and are given the chance to select potentially franchise-altering players to build their team in the draft lottery.
Along with the Knicks, the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Hawks, Suns, Cavs, and Bulls find themselves trying to develop their young guns into elite players, making their team attractive enough for prime free agents down the road.
The teams discussed below selected in the top 10 of this year’s NBA Draft and are currently in rebuilding mode. None of these squads are expected to make the playoffs next season, but the promising ability and upside on these six teams has given each organization and their fans optimism for future success.
In the analysis of the following organizations, only players age 25 and under have been included, since the focus here is on young and emerging talent.
New Orleans Pelicans
After trading away their disgruntled big man and best player in franchise history, Anthony Davis, EVP David Griffin and the Pelicans showed the basketball world they were ready to start from scratch. New Orleans got an absolute haul in return from the Davis trade, acquiring almost every young Laker asset aside from Kyle Kuzma—and a good amount of draft capital in the future. Between that blockbuster trade and some intelligent draft night transactions, the Pelicans have made themselves into one of the most interesting young teams in basketball, with a deep and outstanding collection of versatile talent.
Zion Williamson, 18 (Round 1, Pick 1, 2019, Duke): The Pelicans lucked into getting the first overall pick a few weeks back and made the obvious selection, taking Williamson at the top of the draft. The most hyped prospect since LeBron James, Zion has the ability to take the league by storm and become a megastar very quickly with borderline unfathomable athleticism, elite physical tools, and skills. Not a bad guy to build your franchise around.
Jaxson Hayes, 19 (R1, P8, 2019, Texas): Overshadowed by the Zion hype train, Jaxson Hayes was another good top-10 selection. He is a force down low and has a very high ceiling at the power forward and center positions. Hayes’ 72.8% field goal percentage jumps off the page, making him a likely candidate to anchor the Pelicans’ frontcourt with Zion for years to come.
Brandon Ingram, 21 (R1, P2, 2016, Duke): Ingram had a strange tenure in Los Angeles. It never felt like he lived up to his full potential. A change of scenery will probably benefit Ingram, who has been compared to Kevin Durant, and can be the scoring forward every elite team needs if he is able to put it all together.
Lonzo Ball, 21 (R1, P2, 2017, UCLA): Ball, like Ingram, will most likely benefit getting out of L.A. with a start fresh as a Pelican. Zo has battled injuries in his first few seasons and hasn’t lived up to the huge expectations set by his father and Magic Johnson. Ball is a walking triple-double threat as a 6-6 point guard when he is right physically. If Ball becomes more aggressive and tunes out the noise, he can become the excellent floor general New Orleans needs.
Josh Hart, 24 (R1, P30, 2017, Villanova): Hart, who won a national title as a Villanova Wildcat, brings championship pedigree to a young Pelicans team. Hart can be a solid scorer off the bench and has a strong ability to shoot from deep, which is becoming more and more valuable nowadays.
Jahlil Okafor, 23 (R1, P3, 2015, Duke): Okafor is on his third NBA team in the past two years and has underachieved in his career. He has shown flashes of excellence however, and seems to be comfortable being himself on the court in New Orleans. A frontcourt rotation consisting of himself, Jaxson Hayes, and Zion could be a nightmare for opponents going forward.
Zylan Cheatham, 23 (Undrafted, 2019, Arizona State): Cheatham, although little known, could soon be an integral part of the Pelicans. The 6-fot-8 forward does it all, including excellent defense and rebounding skills. Cheatham can function as a Draymond Green on a roster with much more talented players. After enduring personal tragedy, Cheatham has a huge chip on his shoulder, and was one of the most intense, hard working players in the NCAA last season—a great signing for New Orleans.
After a decent stretch of playoff appearances earlier this decade, the Grizzlies’ age caught up to them, and they were forced to move older guys like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. The rebuild is officially underway, and their young guys are ready to bring relevant basketball back to Memphis.
Ja Morant, 19 (Round 1, Pick 2, 2019, Murray State): An electric combo guard, Morant is everything you want in a young athlete. Relentless on his drives, he can shoot the ball and is as competitive and intense as they come. There is no question Ja has the potential to lead a franchise if he can cut down on his turnovers. Motivated by his father, his first true “hater,” Morant will be ready for whatever the league throws his way.
Jaren Jackson Jr., 19 (R1, P3, 2018, Michigan State): JJJ’s impressive rookie season was cut short by injury, but he showed the world how great he can be. His ability to stretch the floor from the power forward position is tremendous, and there is a good chance he will be an All-Star sooner rather than later.
Brandon Clarke, 22 (R1, P21, 2019, Gonzaga): Clarke may not be as skilled as many of his rookie counterparts, but man is he an athlete. One of the most physically gifted players in his class, he has the potential to be a nice complement to Jackson Jr. down low.
Josh Jackson, 22 (R1, P4, 2017, Kansas): In his first two NBA seasons, Jackson has been alright. He has yet to burst onto the scene, sort of like Brandon Ingram, despite the immense talent he possesses. Fortunately, Jackson is 22 and has some time to find his groove and become the excellent wing player the Grizzlies hope he can be after trading for him on Wednesday. He’s hoping a change of scenery does the Jayhawk well, too.
Like Memphis, Atlanta enjoyed sustained playoff appearances not too long ago and find themselves looking to build through the draft and become relevant again in the East. The Hawks have drafted well over the last few seasons, and their young core four of ballers are all 21 or younger.
Trae Young, 20 (Round 1, Pick 5, 2018, Oklahoma): Trae Young struggled to find consistency the first half of his rookie year, but subsequently burst onto the scene and propelled his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation. His Curry-esque, marksman shooting and ball distribution skills are impressive, making him one of the most exciting guards in the NBA.
John Collins, 21 (R1, P19, 2017, Wake Forest): Collins was neither a lottery pick nor hyped coming out of small ACC school Wake Forest, but the power forward had a breakout season last year—increasing his points per game from 10.5 to 19.5, per ESPN Stats. Collins is a very good athlete who has already developed chemistry with Trae Young.
Kevin Huerter, 20 (R1, P19, 2018, Maryland): Another 19th overall pick who will pay dividends for years to come, Huerter is a lanky guard who can knock down the perimeter shot and rebound well for his position. The New York State product can really play, despite not receiving a ton of attention last season.
Cam Reddish, 19 (R1, P10, 2019, Duke): Reddish was often overshadowed by Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett during his only season at Duke, but indeed hit some big shots for the Blue Devils. Concerns about his motor and attention to detail are a bit of a red flag, but Reddish is an incredibly skilled wing who can become one of the best players in this draft class.
De’Andre Hunter, 21 (R1, P4, 2019, Virginia): Hunter is a Swiss Army knife of a player who specializes in defense and shooting. Hunter is very mature and gives maximum effort, 110% of the time. Although he might not have the highest ceiling, he will be an important piece of an up-and-coming Hawks team.
Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2009–10 season. A revolving door at head coach and underachievement from some of their high draft picks have set them back a bit. Regardless, they boast one of the most interesting young teams in the NBA.
Deandre Ayton, 20 (Round 1, Pick 1, 2018, Arizona): Plain and simple, Deandre Ayton is a beast. Ayton had a fantastic rookie campaign, and the sky is the limit for the Bahamian big man. Ayton averaged a double-double his first season—and he will no doubt build on those impressive numbers in seasons to come.
Devin Booker, 22 (R1, P13, 2015, Kentucky): At 22, Booker has already established himself as a bona fide star, and one of the biggest perimeter threats in the league. Book has been subjected to a lot of losing in his career but seems committed to leading Phoenix back to the promise land.
Mikal Bridges, 22 (R1, P10, 2018, Villanova): Some still question the Knicks’ decision to pass on Mikal Bridges in favor of Kevin Knox, because Bridges’ two-way potential is so good. At Villanova he was a force from the three-point line and an integral defender en route to their National Championship runs. Bridges led all rookies in steals per game, but didn’t have much of an impact offensively.
Ty Jerome, 21 (R1, P24, 2019, Virginia): Jerome, like his good friend Bridges, brings a winning attitude to a Suns franchise that has had a losing culture for nearly a decade. Jerome is an offensive stabilizer who makes smart decisions with the ball and could potentially fill the point guard void the Suns have lived with since Steve Nash departed.
New York Knicks
It’s been a disappointing last few days for Knicks’ fans, as they watched their free agent dreams get crushed by the Brooklyn Nets of all teams. Give the Knicks credit for not panicking, or doling out max contracts to less-than-special players.
Thus far they have made some sound moves, acquiring vets on short-term deals and signing Julius Randle, who at age 24 fits in with New York’s youthful core.
By avoiding impulsive trades, the Knicks have kept their solid young core intact while adding former number-one prospect R.J. Barrett, who has the talent to be an incredible, franchise-altering player.
The Knicks don’t have as many high picks on their roster as teams like the Pelicans or Grizzlies. Instead, they’ve hit on some un-drafted free agents and second-round picks, doing as good a job as anyone finding talent toward the back-end of the draft and in the undrafted pool.
UDFA Allonzo Trier was impressive during his rookie season and will be a scoring option off of the bench going forward.
Damyean Dotson has been a good find, and has shown the ability to hit the three—which the Knicks must improve in the near future. Mitchell Robinson was amazing last season as a second-rounder, and flat out dominated with his shot blocking. Robinson is a stud who will be a mainstay on this team for the foreseeable future. The jury is still out on Ignas Brazdeikis, but you love the fire and passion that this guy played with at Michigan. Iggy will likely get lost in the shuffle this year but can be a solid piece down low in coming years.
One can argue New York has found more success in their second-round selections than their lottery picks, considering how Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina have struggled.
Dennis Smith Jr., another lottery selection, appears poised to take over the point guard position going forward. The Knicks seem to believe in him as their starting 1, and he may have a breakout season coming up.
Overall, the Knicks simply don’t match up to the level of talent other organizations have. Some of the Knicks’ first-round selections haven’t panned out yet and most of their young talent is from the second-round and some trades. Don’t get it twisted—New York’s young core isn’t too far behind some of these other squads, and in a year or two, these grades could change drastically depending on which players pan out and which are heading toward a bust.
Fear not, Knicks fans. New York will still be an interesting team, finally building a roster the correct way.
»READ: Could Dennis Smith Jr. be the Knicks’ All-Star point guard?
»READ: Monday Musings: Free agency reaction; “let the product speak”