When the Knicks snapped their 18-game losing streak last Thursday in Atlanta, just getting a win was much needed for their spirits. And as has been oft-repeated, the race to the bottom isn’t quite as important as it has been in past years, given that the three worst teams will have the same odds for getting the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery.
But it isn’t unimportant, either.
Difficult as it may be to believe after 18 straight losses, the win over the Hawks in the final game before the All-Star break knocked the Knicks out of the bottom spot. With play resuming later this week, the Suns hold the worst record and the Knicks (11-47) are a half-game ahead of them in the standings.
One Eastern Conference team executive tagged the 2019 NBA Draft as a five-player draft that turns weak after that. Although the three worst teams have an equal shot at the top pick, their fate isn’t equal after that. The worst team can drop only as far as No. 5. The second-worst team — currently the Knicks — can fall to No. 6, with a 20 percent chance of landing there. The third-worst team can fall to No. 7, with a 33 percent chance of drafting outside the top five.
So while the Knicks insist they are not interested in tanking, maybe they should be a little more interested. Here’s what the top of the draft looks like right now:
1. Zion Williamson, Duke
The most unique prospect to come out maybe ever, a physical freak at 6-7, 285 pounds who is able to jump beyond anything his body type should be able to create. But while scouts are mixed on just what his pro potential and position are, one NBA front office executive said he thinks there won’t be any issue because Williamson is a much more instinctive and intelligent player than he is credited with because of his athleticism. “I think he’s going to be perfect,” said Knicks rookie Kevin Knox, who played against him multiple times on the AAU circuit. “Zion rebounds the ball. He defends. He’s a team player. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win.” Add in the star power, and any of these bottom-feeding teams would love to have him.
2. RJ Barrett, Duke
His spot in mock drafts has shifted throughout the season, but he has just begun to show that he is more than a ball-dominant scorer, posting a triple-double with no turnovers against North Carolina State on Saturday. “RJ, when he’s locked in, he can guard one through four,” Knox said. “So he does other things than scoring that teams would love about him.”
3. Ja Morant, Murray State
One NBA scout said Morant wasn’t as highly regarded in high school mostly because he weighed about 150 pounds. He has filled out into a prototypical point guard of the present NBA — able to score at all levels with explosive athleticism — and he is a tenacious worker and a very smart player. He had 25 points and 14 assists against Eastern Kentucky last week.
4. Cam Reddish, Duke
How do you figure a player projected as a lights-out shooting wing in the NBA who has been wildly inconsistent in his one college season — including a 2-for-15 night against North Carolina State. NBA officials are still high on Reddish, with one scout predicting that he could go ahead of Barrett.
5. KZ Okpala, Stanford
An intriguing prospect with great length (7-2 wingspan), he looks like an immediate impact player with defensive ability, a smooth three-point shooting stroke and a smart passing game.
6. Nassir Little, North Carolina
This is a pretty good example of the way the draft drops off. Little is a prospect who has received mixed reviews from scouts and is not even starting as a freshman for the Tar Heels. A powerful wing who plays both ends of the floor, he could be the latest in the line of North Carolina players who can be slowed down only by their college coach.
7. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
This range might be high for him, but the rapidly improving power forward has shown promise this season, including leading Gonzaga past Duke early in the season.