As the 2018-19 season wore down and fans at Madison Square Garden looked forward to a better future, it wasn’t unusual to see a Knicks jersey in the crowd crafted with Zion Williamson’s name.
There were no handmade Knicks jerseys with DeAndre Hunter, Jarrett Culver or Coby White embroidered on the back. But when the NBA Draft Lottery is held Tuesday night at the Hilton Chicago, the chances are very real that one of those players ultimately will be fitted for a real Knicks jersey.
Even with the worst record in the NBA, the Knicks have only a 14 percent chance at the top pick, the same as the Cavaliers and Suns. So while those who are employed by and cheer for the franchise will be crossing their fingers, holding good-luck charms and praying hard, the reality is that they have to be ready for something less than the unusual skill set of Williamson, the 6-7 bundle of athleticism who may be unlike any other player in the game.
When Knicks general manager Scott Perry, appearing on ESPN Radio on Monday, was asked if the Knicks will draft Williamson if they land the top pick, he laughed.
“We will find that out soon enough,” he said. “I can’t share any secrets right now. We’re just excited about the opportunity. We’re excited we are one of three teams that has a 14 percent chance. Whatever is in the cards for us tomorrow, we’ll be more than able and willing to handle that and execute the draft position that we have.”
The Knicks, while admittedly in rebuild mode, have tried to temper expectations for the offseason. They had the worst record in the league but still have a 47.9 percent chance at getting the No. 5 pick. Their cap-clearing efforts have afforded them as much as $74 million in cap space, the highest figure in the league, but they have no assurances that stars will take their money.
So they can hope to have the opportunity to draft Williamson but have to ready themselves for the possibility that they will choose among the remainders of the top prospects.
Murray State point guard Ja Morant has moved into the No. 2 spot on most mock drafts and Williamson’s Duke teammate, RJ Barrett, has rounded out the top three. Players such as Virginia's Hunter, Texas Tech's Culver and North Carolina's White as well as Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, Duke’s Cam Reddish and Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura round out the top picks. Sekou Doumbouya, who played in France, is the only international player expected among the lottery picks.
“Our staff has been out the entire year looking at a number of players at the top of this draft,” Perry said. “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.
“Look, tomorrow is another step in our building process as an organization,” he added. “What we know about tomorrow is going to yield a top-five pick, whether it’s one, two, three, four or five. We’re going to be prepared for whatever happens tomorrow in that room with the Ping-Pong balls. We know that we’re going to be able to add a good basketball player into an environment that we think is very suited and conducive to developing young players as we were able to do this year with the strong draft class that we had last year with Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and [undrafted] Allonzo Trier.”
Teams in the draft lottery and their chance of winning it:
New York 14%
New Orleans 6%
Memphis (a) 6%
Dallas (b) 6%
Los Angeles 2%
Sacramento (c) 1%
a-Pick may be conveyed to Boston.
b-Pick may be conveyed to Atlanta.
c-Pick will be conveyed to Boston or to Philadelphia