The Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Hawks are each building something special

New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta each walked away from the 2019 NBA Draft with a real plan and a much brighter future

Brandon Anderson
Jun 21, 2019 · 14 min read

HE DUST IS ONLY BEGINNING TO SETTLE ON THE 2019 NBA DRAFT, but already the draft grades are rolling in. You’ll never believe this, but the team that began the day with the number one and four picks, the New Orleans Pelicans, won the draft. So did a team with three first-round picks, the Boston Celtics. And hey, for the millionth time in a row, the Phoenix Suns managed to lose the draft again. This stuff isn’t rocket science.

Look, draft grades are great, and I’ll do a fuller draft breakdown in the coming days. But draft grades are inherently flawed because there are so many inherent biases. Teams start with different draft equity, and the grader comes in with fully-informed opinions on every player, so they often end up as just a weird redux of big boards and mock drafts.

Today, rather than looking at the entire draft, I want to focus on three teams I’m really excited about after last night. As much of the NBA is loading up on this weird one-year window with the Warriors wounded, three other teams loaded up for the future and came away from the 2019 NBA Draft with a real plan and a brighter future.

Let’s talk about the New Orleans Pelicans, Atlanta Hawks, and Memphis Grizzlies.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans could have literally let the clock run out on their #4 pick and never remembered to make a selection, and they would still have been draft night’s biggest winner thanks to Zion Williamson.

Of course, they didn’t do that. A couple hours before the draft, the Pelicans finally made a decision on their newly-acquired pick, trading it to the Atlanta Hawks for a haul. New Orleans gave #4, a future second-round pick, and Solomon Hill’s bad expiring contract (a negative asset) to the Atlanta Hawks and received 8, 17, 35, and a future first-round pick from the Cavs. That pick is top-10 protected next year and then turns into a pair of second rounders. Cleveland is bad and has every reason to tank to keep their pick, so expect the two seconds. Balance out the deal and you get 4 for 8, 17, 35, a future second, and unloading Hill’s contract. Quite a haul!

I was a bit worried about New Orleans making that many picks when they weren’t expecting to heading into draft night. A week ago they had only the Zion pick, remember, so they could have been unprepared to make three new picks spread throughout the draft. That was not the case. At 8, New Orleans took Jaxson Hayes, a raw but super talented big man who profiles as an elite rim runner. They followed that up by taking Nickeil Alexander-Walker at 17, a long versatile guard that can shoot, pass, and defend. Then at 35 they took Brazilian 3+D wing prospect Didi Souza.

It’s almost impossible to trade away a superstar like Anthony Davis and feel better about your team afterward, but look at the massive haul the Pelicans received from Davis after compiling the two trades:

  • Lonzo Ball
  • Brandon Ingram
  • Josh Hart
  • Jaxson Hayes
  • Nickeil Alexander-Walker
  • Didi Souza
  • Future Cavs 1st (likely a pair of 2s)
  • Lakers 1st, unprotected in what looks like a double draft in 2022
  • Lakers 2023 pick swap rights, when LeBron will be 38
  • Lakers 1st in 2024 or 2025, by choice of New Orleans
  • Dumping Solomon Hill’s $13m contract, which normally costs a 1st

Holy cow! Add it all up and you’ve got a whopping EIGHT first-round picks for Anthony Davis, plus Souza, the pick swap, and the dumped contract. That is a massive, massive haul. The Pelicans did not get a star for Davis… yet. Instead they got about 10 chances at a star. And that’s a pretty great plan.

And it sure does seem like the Pelicans have a plan. Look at all the players they’ve brought in; they sure seem to have a type. Every player they just added is big for their position, and almost all of them bring a versatile skill set and can play and defend multiple positions. All of them defend, almost instinctively. They’re long. They’re athletic. They’re switchy. They are the modern NBA.

I soured on Jaxson Hayes as a rim runner achetype in the draft process, but his upside and potential is clear. Hayes is a former football player and has huge hands and catches everything in his zip code. He’s going to be a massive lob threat rolling to the rim, and he and Zion will give this team a ton of vertical spacing and endless highlights. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a really interesting third guard in a rotation with Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday. All three are really long and profile as strong, smart team defenders. NAW can handle or play off ball, and he can really shoot it, one area this team will be lacking. I admit I don’t know much about Didi, but he is similar size to Lonzo and Holiday and brings a similar 3+D profile.

New Orleans is going to have a super switchable defense with endless length. They will have huge defensive upside, and that’s not even mentioning Brandon Ingram’s length or Josh Hart’s savvy basketball IQ, and veteran E’Twaun Moore fits the mold too. More than any other skills, I value defense, feel for the game, and shooting. The Pelicans have checked defense and feel in a huge way with these acquisitions. The shooting needs some work, but most of these guys have nice touch with reason to believe the shooting will come.

Zion and Jaxson could turn into something similar to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan next to one another. Many rim runners struggle to stay on the court in a playoff setting, but I’ll probably want Zion playing small-ball center then anyway so that works out just fine.

New Orleans has an identity now. They are a defense-first team that will play smart basketball, and they’re going to run, run, run, and be super entertaining, Lob City part II. Every piece they got in the Davis trade has future trade value too, and suddenly New Orleans has the biggest asset war chest in the NBA. There are more moves to come.

There are a ton of lineup combinations here. The Pels can play big with Ingram at the three and Zion-Jaxson inside. They can go small with Zion at center. They can play a three-guard rotation with Lonzo, Jrue, and NAW or Hart, and Ingram as a stretch four. All of these lineups are in play now, and they’re all good defensively and put a lot of smart players on the court together. And now we get to watch as they figure the rest out together.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were on the other side of that Pelicans deal, and they gave up quite a bit to move up to #4. And maybe they gave up too much, if you imagine those 8, 17, and 35 picks as Cam Reddish, Brandon Clarke, and Chuma Okeke going into the draft.

Atlanta indeed paid a steep price. This is the second year in a row the Hawks made a huge swing in the top-10. Last year they traded down two spots, landing Trae Young but giving up the chance to select Luka Doncic. This year they effectively traded that bonus pick plus the assets they acquired for Taurean Waller-Prince to move up for another player they coveted, De’Andre Hunter. It stands to reason that Hunter was the top non-Zion player on Atlanta’s board. R.J. Barrett doesn’t fit the team’s m.o., and Ja Morant doesn’t fit next to Trae Young. So Atlanta got their top choice last year in Trae and their top non-Zion pick this year in Hunter. They also still got Cam Reddish, the other player they were reportedly considering at #4 after their trade up, so it looks like they may have actually gotten the top TWO non-Zion guys on their draft board. The price remains steep, but it’s not as steep as if Atlanta had traded both 8 and 10 to move up. The truth is that the Hawks had enough assets to roll the dice a bit on a player they coveted.

And it’s easy to see what that is De’Andre Hunter. Let’s stop calling Hunter the best player in the draft or comparing him to Kawhi Leonard. Those comps are a disservice to Hunter, an excellent player all on his own without needing the ridiculous superlatives. Hunter is a player that brings almost everything to the table and takes nothing off of it. He is in fact an outstanding defender, both on the ball and in team defense. He is a very smart player who is almost always in the right spot, and he’s a good shooter that will excel in a lower-usage role in Atlanta with Trae Young hitting him for open jumpers he can step into.

Hunter is the elite defender this team badly needed. It’s easy to look at Hunter and focus on his lack of star upside, but if you do that, you’ll miss the value of an elite 3+D wing prospect. How many NBA wings can defend multiple positions as the best or second best defender on the team while also adding knockdown shooting and smart passing? Go ahead and list them off. There just aren’t that many, and there weren’t any other sure things like Hunter in this draft. Atlanta zeroed in on their guy and they got him.

I really disliked the trade at first because I thought the Hawks could have stayed put at 8 and gotten Hunter and Reddish. But I like the deal much more now that they got both of them. Reddish has big defensive potential too, and he has huge shooting potential. He is much better as a catch-and-shoot guy and will get plenty of those looks in this offense, and his size as a defender are a huge and needed complement on this team. If Reddish ends up being a second 3+D wing, that’s okay. Atlanta needs players like that badly, and he will provide spacing and gravity on offense and value off the ball. I thought Atlanta would have taken Jarrett Culver, but they clearly prioritized Reddish and Hunter over Culver because of their shooting ability.

Now Atlanta has a real starting five they can get excited about, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter at guards, Reddish and Hunter as low-usage 3+D wings, and John Collins as the hyper-athletic rim runner. The defense still needs work, but that offense will have elite spacing both horizontally and vertically. Teams will need to defend Trae 35 feet from the hoop while protecting the rim from Collins and somehow staying on Huerter, Reddish, and Hunter waiting to shoot an open three from the corner. Spoiler alert: it ain’t gonna happen. That team is going to score a LOT of points. They will be really, really hard to defend.

Atlanta doesn’t have many other pieces yet. There’s Omari Spellman, another first-round pick from a year ago that could still turn into a stretch five. Alex Len will probably be the de facto starting center for another year. And there’s a bunch of bad salary veterans in Kent Bazemore, Allen Crabbe, Solomon Hill, and Miles Plumlee that can eat minutes and turn into positive assets later this year when their expiring contracts are all valuable to other teams.

Atlanta has no significant salary commitments past this season and they still have plenty of assets — their own future first-round picks, plus firsts from Brooklyn and Oklahoma City. That’s why they felt the time was right to go get Hunter and Reddish. It was a big price to pay, but Atlanta has a real offensive identity to build around, and now they have the defenders to balance the team too.

Memphis Grizzlies

I wasn’t that excited about the Mike Conley deal, a pupu platter of pieces that didn’t look too exciting — Grayson Allen, the #23 pick, and a few veteran wings that don’t help the team. But it’s amazing how that look can change when the team turns that pick into the number two guy on my entire draft board.

My final Big Board ranked Brandon Clarke second and Ja Morant third, and the Grizzlies walked away with both of them somehow. Incredible.

Ja Morant was always going to be a Grizzly from the night of the draft. He makes a lot of sense on this roster because you want to pair him with a strong pick-and-roll big man that can shoot or roll to the rim and finish athletically. Uh… can I interest you in two of those? Brandon Clarke is so good I actually took him for Memphis in one of my mock drafts at #2 instead of Morant. Clarke is going to be incredible next to Jaren Jackson Jr. as the two immediately become my favorite young front court in the NBA. Both players have out of this world defensive instincts and shot blocking ability, and now they can take turns playing off each other and covering the rim. Opponents are going to have an abysmal two-point percentage in the no-flying zone when they visit Memphis. Clarke and JJJ will shut things down. They’ll also switch and defend on the perimeter, not one but two deadly weapons to stop the pick-and-roll. Good luck playing a Memphis big man off the court. These two can do everything.

Offensively, the Clarke and JJJ fit works well too, and it will work better as both players grow. Jackson projects as an above average shooter and spacer and is already on his way there after shooting 36% behind the arc as a rookie. He still has faint flashes of a modern-day Kevin Garnett to his game, and if that’s not enough hyperbole, just know that Jackson could still end up as the best player in last year’s draft — the one that featured Luka Doncic and Trae Young. It’s in play. Jackson and Clarke will be raw as they figure things out but both have terrific advanced stats, great touch around the rim, and savvy basketball minds. They both move a lot on offense and get into good space, and though they lack some traditional NBA girth, they should play well together and give Memphis a very modern look.

And what better pairing with Ja Morant? Now he has two guys to hit on alley oops all game and two rim protectors to make up for his lack of defense. As for Morant’s other glaring weakness for now, his shot? Well, look at what Memphis has on the wings: Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, and C.J. Miles, all strong shooters.

They also added one of my favorite sleepers, John Konchar, as an undrafted free agent. I wouldn’t have been totally unhappy with Memphis using the #23 pick on Konchar — instead they used it on the #2 player on my board and got Konchar for free. That is some savvy drafting by a team that clearly has a strong analytical-minded department.

Memphis doesn’t have as complete a plan as New Orleans or Atlanta. Grayson Allen and John Konchar may or may not be real long-term pieces, and Korver and Crowder will surely be unloaded in deals sometime this season. Delon Wright and Jonas Valancinuas could be back as remnants from the Marc Gasol trade, and Kyle Anderson has depth. None of those pieces really move the needle long-term.

But Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr. sure do. They move the needle a big way. One week ago Memphis had very little future outside of JJJ and a rapidly aging Mike Conley. Now they’ve got a trio of youngsters as strong as any in the league.

Take a look around the league and you won’t find many brighter futures than in New Orleans, Atlanta, or Memphis. The Nuggets, Sixers, and Celtics still have them beat, and Dallas is in the conversation, but the Pelicans, Hawks, and Grizzlies are next in line.

And that means Draft Night 2019 might be the night that changed everything for these three franchises. ■

Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.


Original reporting and curated sports data journalism.

Brandon Anderson

Written by

Sports, TV, NBA, NFL, culture. Words at SI's Cauldron, Grandstand Central, others @wheatonbrando ✞


Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

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