After months of breathless anticipation — and a race to the bottom of the standings — the New Orleans Pelicans won the N.B.A.’s draft lottery, earning the rights to the No. 1 pick in a draft that features one of the most highly touted consensus No. 1 picks in league history: Duke’s Zion Williamson.
The Pelicans were tied for the seventh best chance of getting the first pick after finishing the season with a record of 33-49. The Knicks (17-65), the Cleveland Cavaliers (19-63) and the Phoenix Suns (19-63) had each gone into the night with a 14 percent chance at the top pick in a revamped system that was designed to reduce the value of tanking, but the Knicks fell to No. 3, Cleveland to No. 5 and Phoenix to No. 6.
The prize for the New Orleans is the right to a pick that will almost assuredly be used on the 18-year-old Williamson, a player who has received as much attention as any amateur since LeBron James went straight to the N.B.A. from high school in 2003.
In an age in which 3-point shooting skills seem to be valued above all else, Williamson is a throwback to a more rough and tumble era of the N.B.A. He stands 6 feet 7 inches and tips the scales at 280 pounds of sculpted muscle. He does much of his damage in the paint, using his power and his leaping ability to set up countless highlight-reel dunks.
[The legend of Zion Williamson? That started long before he got to Duke.]
Williamson is doing his best to appear humble in advance of the draft.
“The biggest challenge is just trying to live up to everyone’s expectations,” he said in an interview televised before the lottery.
The only open question now that the top pick is decided is whether New Orleans will make the pick itself, setting Williamson up to star alongside Jrue Holiday, and possibly Anthony Davis, or if another team can put together a trade package enticing enough to wrestle the pick away.
Whoever ends up with Williamson will get an all-A.C.C. defender who as a freshman won the 2019 Naismith Award, which recognizes the nation’s top college player. He averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds a game for the Blue Devils on their path to a Round of Eight appearance, with many feeling that the air drained out of the N.C.A.A. tournament when Duke was upset by Michigan State.
Until that loss, the only thing that had slowed Williamson’s progress was a knee injury sustained when one of his sneakers split apart in the opening minute of a game against North Carolina in February. That moment, in which a sneaker could not withstand the force of moving the giant player from side to side, seemed to bolster the Paul Bunyan-like hyperbole applied to Williamson without appearing to have created any long-term problems.
Before the top pick was announced Tuesday night, the lottery played out like this (with picks 15-30 coming in reverse order of the 2018-19 standings):
1. New Orleans Pelicans
2. Memphis Grizzlies
4. Los Angeles Lakers
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
6. Phoenix Suns
7. Chicago Bulls
8. Atlanta Hawks (via Dallas)
9. Washington Wizards
10. Atlanta Hawks
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
12. Charlotte Hornets
13. Miami Heat
14. Boston Celtics (via Sacramento)
While Williamson went into the season sharing top billing with his teammate R.J. Barrett, he quickly surpassed Barrett — and every other college player — in the eyes of scouts and fans.
Barrett, who averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game, is still expected to be an early selection in the draft, as is a third member of the Blue Devils, Cameron Reddish. But they were unexpectedly leapfrogged in most projections by Murray State’s Ja Morant who, like Williamson, is known for his prodigious dunks. Morant, who honored his early commitment to a small school even after bigger programs came calling, was able to lift the mid-major Racers to N.C.A.A. relevance with his overall offensive excellence.
For the Knicks, Cavaliers and Suns to come away as lottery losers, after appearing to tank for a low place in the standings, lends some credibility to the new system, which was intended to flatten out the benefits of a terrible record. This is the first draft under the new system, which team owners approved in 2017. In addition to lowering the top team’s chance to 14 percent from the 25 percent it had been in the past, the new system improved the chances for other teams to move up in the lottery, while increasing the risk of top teams falling.
The draft will be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 20.