CHICAGO — The Knicks brought back Patrick Ewing to sit on the dais, not only recalling the last true stroke of luck — or conspiracy — from the very first NBA Draft Lottery 34 years earlier, but also appeasing the basketball gods by making peace with the last link to greatness on the court for the franchise.
But even that wasn’t enough to change the Knicks’ fortunes. After slogging through an NBA-worst 17-65 season, matching the worst season in franchise history, raising hopes that it would all lead to Zion Williamson coming to Madison Square Garden and inspiring all sorts of slogans — Tryin’ for Zion, Crying for Zion — the Knicks could not win the battle of the Ping-Pong balls, falling to No. 3 in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Ewing said he wasn’t nervous as he was brought to the front of the stage, one of four representatives left. But after the Lakers were announced as the fourth pick his luck— and the Knicks’— ran out. The Knicks got No. 3 with the Memphis Grizzlies at No. 2 and the New Orleans Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick. But Ewing said he was confident that there would still be a special player at No. 3.
“I think so,” Ewing said. “You know, you look at all the guys that are in this room, they all have great talent. They all have great abilities. And whoever we pick is going to be somebody that is going to help to rebuild the franchise.”
While the odds were against them - just a 14 percent chance of getting the top spot and the other two teams with the same odds fell out of the top four - it still stings. This loss might have been more painful than any of the 65 that at least provided hope that Williamson, who appears to be the clearcut choice atop the draft, would be the reward for shedding nearly any player who had a chance of helping the team to win a game, sitting others and sending out a young and outmanned roster onto the court.
Instead, the Knicks will have their pick of a crop that according to numerous scouts drops off precipitously after the first pick and then again after the third. Ja Morant of Murray State has emerged as the favorite for the No. 2 pick and Williamson’s Duke teammate, RJ Barrett is projected as the third-best prospect. And then it’s a group of players that you could shuffle like the Ping-pong balls to decide who is next best.
The Knicks issued a statement from team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry that said, “We are excited to have the third pick and are confident we will be able to add a great player to our talented young core and the team that we are building.”
Morant said that he wasn’t focused on whether he would be No. 2 or could fall to the Knicks. He said he had never been to New York, but was ready to help wherever he lands.
“Honestly, I don’t get into all that,” he said. “I just try to be the same Ja and continue to work. Whatever – first, second, third pick – I’m going to be the same Ja, come in and trying to make an impact.”
The group after those top three includes another Duke freshman Cam Reddish, Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter, Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver and North Carolina’s Coby White. All talented and intriguing - and none of them Zion. Entering the night with just a 14 percent chance at the top pick under the new lottery format this season that put the three worst teams all at 14 percent and the other teams not far behind, the Knicks have tried to soften expectations.
“Our staff has been out the entire year looking at a number of players at the top of this draft,” Perry said Monday in an ESPN radio interview. “Obviously, people are very aware of the players that were at Duke that played alongside Zion; they’re going to be top players. The young player from Murray State, Ja Morant, is another guy who projects to be a very good player in this league. You have the young man from Virginia, the young man from Gonzaga; there’s a number of guys that are going to be up at the top of this draft for teams to look at who we think have a chance to be good players in this league.
“Again, so much of it will get down to when we get a chance to meet these young players and really get a feel for their personalities, because we’ve been able to evaluate their talent from afar on the floor, we’ve been able to talk to a number of sources about them, but now, that final touch really comes down to your personal interaction with each of these players.”
While there were rumors that the Knicks could be in the mix for a trade with the Pelicans to obtain disgruntled star Anthony Davis, Williamson likely would have been a part of any of those deals. Now that they have the ability to draft him, Pelicans VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin said, “It’s the same situation. We want to create an environment players are attracted to. We feel very strongly Anthony in totality will be attracted to what we can build and what we can offer. It’s the same for all players. We’re going to stand for something.”
NBA Draft Lottery order
1. New Orleans
4. L.A. Lakers