NEW ORLEANS — An historic week for the New Orleans Pelicans came to a peak Thursday evening when general manager David Griffin and the front office chose Zion Williamson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
“We had a rather eventful evening,” said Griffin, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, as he plopped down at a temporary dais set up in the Pelicans’ media room.
It had, after all, been a long day.
An hour earlier, Griffin had been seated around a table with coach Alvin Gentry, scouts and other members of the Pelicans’ front office in their temporary “war room” phoning into New York City. The room erupted into cheers and sharing of high-fives when the Williamson pick was finally made.
“We are [beginning to] crescendo now,” Griffin said. “I think it is only going to continue to grow.”
Selecting Williamson first was a predictable move, but a win the smarting Pelicans desperately needed.
It has been a riotous few months for the franchise. Anthony Davis, their best player, publicly requested a trade in February. The move sent the team into a tailspin. Days after then-general manager Dell Demps failed to send off Davis by the February trade deadline, he was fired. The Pelicans then stumbled to an awkward end of the season.
New blood came along. A new head of basketball operations took the helm, and the Pelicans won the lottery for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Griffin agreed to trade Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and four draft picks.
Of course, Griffin could not address any of those moves because the trade cannot become official until July 6, and talking about dealing Davis to L.A. would violate NBA rules. But suddenly, the attention New Orleans was getting shifted from pity and concern to awe: Another once-in-a-generation star was on the way to the Big Easy.
“Winning that moment was a watershed moment for us as a franchise,” Griffin said of the lottery.
All week, the city had been abuzz. Candles with Williamson depicted as a saint began popping up around the French Quarter. The maitre d’ at Commander’s Palace — a famed culinary destination here — proudly told diners they had missed Williamson by only a couple of days. And on Thursday, thousands of fans, dressed in Pelicans’ red, packed Manning’s Sports Bar ready to shoot streamers into the sky.
New Orleans’ draft night became even more lucrative when Griffin agreed to flip the No. 4 pick the team acquired from the Lakers for the Atlanta Hawks‘ No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks. In the package for the No. 4 slot, the Pelicans also agreed to send Solomon Hill to the Hawks, which created more salary cap space for New Orleans. According to estimates by ESPN front office expert Bobby Marks, Griffin now has $31 million to spend on free agents.
Minutes after news of the trade circulated on Twitter, “David Griffin” began trending in New Orleans. Still, the biggest move of the night was choosing Williamson.
“One of the very first things I said to our staff in our first meeting was, ‘Someone make the case to me for Zion Williamson,'” Griffin said. “They thought I was kidding. I said no, seriously, talk me into Williamson and it took a while for anyone to formulate words. It is hard for people to express it.”
Even though it was far from a surprise selection, Williamson teared up in the interview immediately after his name was called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“Oh you can hear people say things like, ‘Oh, that it was likely I was going to go No. 1,’ but I guess you don’t know until you actually go through it,” Williamson told reporters in New York. “Hearing my name called and I was able to make it on stage without a tear, shake the commissioner’s hand, but in the interview with my mom standing beside me, and my emotions just took over.”
Ten miles away from the Pelicans’ headquarters, thousands of fans dressed in red braved the sweltering 91-degree heat to cheer on their team.
Williamson, who has drawn comparisons to a young LeBron James, might not transform the franchise overnight. After all, he is only 18 years old.
“This is Jrue Holiday‘s team,” Griffin said. “Zion is going to be learning how to win at a really high level. At some point, if there is a time that the baton gets passed in terms of who is expected to carry us to win games, it will. That is not now.”
Griffin continued: “Let Zion be that kid. Don’t write this like he is here to save this franchise. He is not. He is here to join this family.”
But Williamson’s promise alone has caused season-ticket holders who were threatening to walk away to instead renew their seats after the team earned the rights to draft him. It made Gentry stand up from his lottery-night seat and yell, “F— yeah!” (Since the video of the coach hollering went viral, Gentry has been gifted a shirt with the expletive written on it.)
Williamson’s message to the city was simple: “Let’s dance!”
With that, New Orleans fans at the watch party cheered and opened their arms as if to begin to rumba with their new potential franchise player.